COMMENT: How is the car evolving?

By Dave Leggett | 2 September 2013

Sit back and relax. Is it an exciting prospect?

Sit back and relax. Is it an exciting prospect?

How is the car evolving? Think of how the car behaved and looked thirty years ago, twenty, ten. The engineers and designers are constantly improving the product. Cars are becoming cleaner, more efficient, packed with safety features and gizmos that can deliver 'surprise and delight' to passengers and drivers. The technical improvements in areas like powertrain are little short of astounding. And no-one, really, makes a truly awful car these days – quality bars have been raised everywhere.

It all adds up to improving the driving experience and doing that at a price that is acceptable to the consumer ('value' in all senses of the word, not just price). Brand still counts because the car is not simply a transportation object or commodity for most. Your choice of car still sends out subtle, or not so subtle, messages about your preferences and it's still a big-ticket item. You don't make the investment in car ownership lightly.

Which brings me to the super-high-tech vision of car of the future that drives itself. Autonomous cars are an interesting one for carmakers. The technology - expensive now, but much cheaper if mass production comes - is technically feasible and has been demonstrated. There are, however, still plenty of questions to be answered ahead of real deployment. The legal questions are obvious: who's driving and who's responsible? And then there's the question of what the consumer really wants. A high-tech featureless pod that gets you from A to B? Effectively, that's a taxi without a driver. Or a brand experience that still allows greater driver engagement? 

Advanced driver assistance systems can already help the driver to enjoy the driving experience more, let the technology actively bolster safety, take care of things that the driver doesn't want to worry about (like a slippery road surface). A line is crossed when the technologies can actually drive the car fully. While most of us would agree that driving a car - any car - is frequently one of those small pleasures in life, there are also times when it would undeniably be nice to switch to the automotive equivalent of autopilot and read a newspaper or take a nap (that may be a big issue eventually, allowing - or not - the scenario of the driver being asleep).

And many of the benefits that could flow from vehicles communicating with each other depend on just that. You might be in a state-of-the-art driverless vehicle, but that might be cold comfort in the aftermath of an unavoidable collision with the reckless driver of a vehicle not so well equipped. 

Nissan has suggested that it is aiming for autonomous drive in some of its vehicles by 2020. It sounds like an aggressive target and we'll be following progress closely. I suspect the term 'autonomous drive' may prove somewhat elastic as the industry works out what will work with regulators and what will not. Not only that, but there's the question of profit and what people will pay for, where the future brand experience will lie. I can't imagine many people wanting to own a featureless pod.

US: Nissan targets autonomous drive to market by 2020