The car steers itself steadily down the motorway while the person in the driver’s seat gazes out the window or checks his emails. While Google and car makers are advancing driverless technology, European legislation is not keeping pace.
And driverless vehicles will not be a feature at the Geneva Motor Show opening on Thursday.
“We don’t feel the trend right now,” motor show spokeswoman Sylvie Blattner told swissinfo.ch. “The focus this year is much more on low consumption and low-emission vehicles.”
But when? Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin stuck his neck out last year announcing the firm’s plan to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in just five years.
And Nissan’s chief executive officer, Carlos Ghosn, has predicted that driverless cars would be in showrooms by 2020.
Since 2005 Google’s adapted Toyota Prius hybrid has been leading the driverless charge. Its fleet of 12 vehicles has logged over 500,000 kilometres in self-driving mode in tests on roads in California.
And research teams at Oxford University, Berlin's Free University and the University of Parma in Italy have also been working on their own autonomous models.
Away from the media glare, many car manufacturers including Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and Nissan have been experimenting and steadily introducing autonomous functions like adaptive cruise control with steering assistance, lane assist and guided parking to enhance the driving experience.
The technology may be there, but the lack of clear road regulations and concerns over liability in the event of an accident threaten to stall development.
At present three US states have passed legislation permitting driverless cars – Nevada, Florida and California – and are working on more precise rules.
In Europe there are no laws in place to regulate the use of driverless cars or any plans to propose such legislation.
To do so would require an adaptation of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, argues Siim Kallas, the European Commission vice-president and commissioner responsible for transport. Article eight of this 1968 UN treaty explicitly states, “Every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver”.
In Switzerland there are also no explicit guidelines for driverless vehicles. Guido Bielmann, spokesman for the Federal Roads Office explained that article eight of the Vienna Convention had become a “basic tenet of Swiss legislation”. He added that when examining other Swiss driving laws you can clearly deduce that a vehicle needs a driver.
Rudolf Blessing of the car importers’ association Auto-Suisse seriously doubted that driverless cars would soon be appearing on Swiss roads.
“The problems are not so much technological but more especially linked to legislation. Switzerland will be obliged to wait and see what happens at the European level,” he explained.
But changes could be in the air. Kallas told the European Parliament last October that talks on these issues recently started with the Working Party on Road Traffic Safety of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Transport Division.
Geneva Motor Show
The 83rd Geneva International Motor Show, which runs from March 7-17, is expected to attract over 700,000 visitors including 10,000 journalists.
Around 130 world and European premieres are announced. In all some 260 exhibitors are taking part from 30 countries. For the second year running the European Car of the Year award will be announced at the motor show.
Around 40 per cent of visitors travel from outside Switzerland, with many from neighbouring Germany, France and Italy.
The organisers claim that the Geneva Motor Show is one of the five top motor events alongside Frankfurt, Detroit, Paris and Tokyo. It is said to generate SFr300 million ($254.3 million) in direct and indirect income.
Despite the legal grey area and potential hold-ups, autonomous vehicles have made their way to Switzerland. Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and the French firm Induct are currently testing a driverless electric shuttle on its 55 hectare campus.
The “Navia”, fitted with laser telemetry, GPS, 3D cameras and sensors to detect objects up to a 200-metre range, can carry up to eight people at a maximum speed of 20 km/h.
“Below 50 metres the computer knows if it’s facing a fixed or moving obstacle, calculates its speed and anticipates its route,” explains Induct CEO Pierre Levèvre. When confronted with a sudden irrational movement the shuttle stops in its tracks.
EPFL hopes to set up a driverless public transport system on the sprawling campus that extends to the nearby village of St Sulpice with a fleet of up to a six Navia that follow set routes. It is awaiting approval from the Federal Roads Office, who are said to be “interested”.
In parallel the institute hopes the project is selected next year as one of five locations to benefit from EU support in an 8-10 month trial as part of the European City Mobil 2 driverless vehicle initiative.
Safer than humans?
Google says driverless vehicles have “the power to change lives” and believes that, equipped with smart software and sensors, and with computer power doubling every two years, it is just a question of time before they are safer than those driven by humans.
Robot car evangelists claim that autonomous cars should reduce driver error and slash the number of road deaths – over 1.2 million people die every year in road crashes and 50 million more are injured, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In-built computer-controlled sensors would help traffic flow smoother and car ownership would be available to new groups of people previously unable to own a car like the elderly or disabled, they argue.
The question is whether cars will ever be fully autonomous. Some car executives say the driver may need to retain control even if the car takes most of the decisions. Can a self-driving car be taught how to respond in an emergency if, for example, a ball runs into a road followed by a small child?
And sitting behind the wheel doing nothing, won’t we miss simple pleasures like slamming the accelerator to the floor?