Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Phantom Driver

Following the steps of Google –whose self driving car is currently being tested on public roads in California –, it was German luxury car-maker Daimler AG’s turn to reveal a Mercedes S-Class Sedan capable of driving itself at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. The latest unveiling of driverless technology is part of a recent trend wherein major automotive players, including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Audi, Toyota, BMW, Volvo and Nissan, are turning their interest to driverless car systems in a bid to claim a slice of the potentially lucrative market.

Expectations for the market are high. A recent Navigant Research report estimates the sales of autonomous vehicles to reach 95.4 million annually by 2035, a whole 75% share of all light-duty vehicle sales. According to Google co-founder and special projects director Sergey Brin, the opportunity for ordinary people to have a self-driving car will be a reality in less than five years. With Nissan announcing it would have a street-ready driverless car in 2020, the race is now on among car manufacturers.

In the United States, statistics show an increase in the number of older age citizens who are active drivers. By 2020, 26% of the country’s population will be over 66 years of age. The industry’s spotlight is now on the potentially cash-rich “silver tsunami” that is sweeping across the globe, with automakers turning to the potential of driverless technology to engineer safer cars for an ageing population with decreased abilities.

Car makers have designed a customized “ageing suit” to obtain insights on the challenges faced by elderly drivers. The suit mimics the constricted movements of an elderly while specialized goggles distort colours and simulate poor eye vision, thus helping car makers design features promoting a safer driving experience. Features include blind spot monitoring and lane departure prevention systems, as well as seatbelt-mounted rear airbags given elderly motorists appear more prone to thoracic injuries.

Moving to the local front and riding on the driverless technology wave is Singapore’s first electric autonomous vehicle. As part of a two-year collaboration between Nanyang Technological University, JTC Corporation and Induct TEchnologies, the vehicle will be on trial soon. This is a timely breakthrough as a similar demographic shift awaits Singapore – by 2030, one in five Singaporean residents will be age 65 and above. Though owning a Singapore-made driverless vehicle remains a distant dream, the reality of being able to be hands-free while driving on the roads is not a far-fetched one.