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Chasing Google...
Chasing Google...
Nikolaus Doll

BERLIN - Everybody should have a car like KITT -- the black 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that David Hasselhoff, in the TV series KnightRider, fought crime with.

Hasselhoff’s character couldn’t believe what happened the first time he drove the car. As he was driving 140 miles an hour on the highway, a truck appeared out of the blue. And then, somehow, his car swerved to avoid a collision, all on its own. On top of being smart, KITT could also talk.

Pretty soon, there will be KITT-like cars out there for real.

Smart cars may have been pure fiction in the 1980s, but now it’s just a question of time before self-driving cars come onto the market. "The technical requirements are pretty much all sorted out already. The ‘auto’ is going to become what the word actually means – self, as in, it drives itself," says Mathieu Meyer, Global Head of Automotive for KPMG.

And these "autos" in the new sense of the word are going to jolt more than just the car industry: they will change the way we live and the way our cities look. They will also change economies. They are going to turn the world as we know it now on its head.

Car manufacturers are still keeping a low profile on this subject, however. At the Paris Auto Show this week, they’ll be presenting models of the kinds of cars we’re used to, just better looking, safer, and cheaper to run.

The main focus for the sector these past five years has been switching to alternative fueling systems. Driving this are governments in the three largest markets -- the U.S., China and the EU -- that keep tightening the rules out of environmental concerns. Another focus of this year’s Auto Show will doubtlessly also be how the sector can best emerge from the crisis.

The time may not be right to pursue the subject of the self-driving car right now, but the fact is that it will become a reality faster than cars that can run long distances without fossil fuels. "Fully automatic driving will be possible in 15 years," said Dr. Elmar Degenhart, CEO of Continental AG, a leading manufacturer of automotive parts, at a recent meeting in Berlin.

Researchers working on artificial intelligence at Berlin’s Freie Universität believe that it may happen even sooner, a notion supported by a recent KPMG study.

After polling executives at car and high-tech companies, KPMG compiled a scenario for the introduction of self-driving cars, starting with North America where traffic authorities are expected to have developed binding rules for the vehicles by 2014 or 2015.

The first cars capable of communicating with traffic infrastructure and other vehicles, could come onto the market in 2018 or 2019. The study anticipates that there would be enough such cars on the road by 2025 to help the technology break through.

The scenario is by no means unrealistic. Google, for example, has for over two years been operating a test fleet that by now has driven thousands of miles. Since May, the company has had an official license in Nevada to conduct test drives in normal traffic -- as long as a driver sits in the car, ready to take over control of the vehicle if necessary. California has now also given self-driving cars the green light: recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing test-drives with self-driving cars.

In Germany, Berlin and TÜV inspection authorities gave the OK last year and since then a VW Passat run by Freie Universität researchers has clocked untold kilometers in Berlin traffic – with a few glitches, but always with a human driver on hand to right the situation.

Hefty price tag

One thing that is less likely however is that the prices of the technology needed for self-driving cars will be low enough for mass production by 2015. Just the laser scanner – which scans the car's surroundings uninterruptedly for possible obstacles -- on the roof of a Google car costs some $70,000.

While some may perceive that as a significant roadblock, the success of new technologies depends on vision -- not perceived hindrances. If we cast ourselves into the near future, we know that “drivers” will not be using a steering wheel anymore but programming the car computer. Accidents due to errors or inattentiveness by drivers and other road users will hardly ever happen because the computer will drive the vehicle as reliably as planes on autopilot. This may well mean that cars can be made out of other materials -- lighter, cheaper -- than those used now.

That would leave the way open for a whole new interior design and use of space, and reduce energy consumption so that the issue of gas or electricity would lose some of the urgency it has today. Drivers would also approach a car trip the way they now look at a train or plane trip – as travel time they can use to do other things.

There are still plenty of issues to consider though, not the least of which privacy: "The question of just how autonomous a car is depends on the amount of data it can access. That means that car owners will have to impart quite a bit of information. More about us will be known," says Mathieu Meyer.

The KPMG self-driving car study lists "key players" as Google, Apple, Microsoft, TomTom and Siemens.

It remains to be seen which manufacturers will, as Daimler already has, leap on the bandwagon. But the big unknown is the market. Do car buyers want this? David Hasselhoff’s take on the KITT was: "I hate it. I like to make my own decisions."

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