"The necessary technology for autonomous cars is already in place," confirms Lothar Groesch, an expert on safety technology. Groesch, 66, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, has spent most of his career working in development for Daimler and Bosch, the automotive parts giant. But now his job as a freelance industrial consultant allows him to speak his mind freely, rather than being limited to what his bosses want him to say.
Groesch recently helped Bosch with its development of driver assistance systems. He quickly recognized that, when taken together, all of the instruments designed to assist drivers added up to a technology suite that will ultimately make it possible to liberate cars from their drivers.
The question is whether or not people will embrace it. Carmakers' greatest fear is that this development will rob the automobile of its magic, reducing the once all-powerful driver to a passive passenger.
But the fact is that this process has already been underway for a long time. It began 20 years ago with the introduction of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems that apply targeted braking to individual wheels so as to prevent skidding and make sure that overzealous drivers don't lose control while accelerating around curves. Of course, most cars offer a way for people looking to drive the old way to switch the ESC system off. But, says Groesch: "That's foolishness in terms of road safety." And engineers believe that there is less and less justification for having drivers the better automated vehicle-control technology gets.
Today's cars come with radar sensors and cameras that can recognize, for example, situations where a collision may occur if the driver doesn't react in time. These cars first sound a warning, then brake fully, although often not until it's too late -- the vehicle still crashes into the obstacle but at a lower speed. "The car could do better, but it's not allowed to," Groesch explains. "It would make a lot more sense to intervene earlier, without first giving a warning. The warning only wastes time."
Freedom vs. Safety This is where car developers -- and lawmakers -- are forced to ask themselves some weighty questions. Is the experience of driving a car something worthy of preserving? Does it lose its allure when drivers are stripped of the freedom to drive their cars themselves -- and also of the freedom to cause accidents with those cars? How much blood is society willing to spill for the sake of our freedom to drive cars by ourselves?
No other invention in the history of civilian technology has caused as much harm as the automobile has -- not airplanes or electricity or even nuclear power. A person dies in a traffic accident somewhere in the world every 30 seconds, adding up to well over 1 million deaths each year. And the World Health Organization estimates that his figure will only continue to rise as more and more people in developing countries acquire cars. What's more, human error is the cause of almost every automobile accident.
As measured by capacity, commercial airplanes and trains are up to 1,000 times safer than automobiles. And the reasons are clear: Airplanes and trains are not steered by hundreds of millions of people who have received driver's licenses without any further verification of their character or intelligence. Instead, they are controlled by a much smaller group of experts trained for precisely this task.