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Last Updated: Friday, 10 March 2006, 17:55 GMT
The end of life in the fast lane?
David Reid
By David Reid
Click reporter

Car technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated. From satellite navigation to built-in cameras warning drivers of approaching obstacles, it seems that cars can almost drive themselves. David Reid looks at the latest car technology and considers whether too many gadgets could take the fun out of driving.

The Nissan Pivo concept car at the Geneva Motor Show
Is technology helping to change the concept of driving?
If you want to sell cars in Europe then the way in is through Geneva.

Each year thousands descend on the Swiss city's motor show to check out what will be filling their rear-view mirror and bearing down on them on the motorway or sitting in front of them in traffic.

With oil getting scarce and our polluted planet wheezing, the buzz at the show was for cars that care, the hybrids whose engines are powered from two sources.

There were also the plug-and-play electric cars. Forget streamlining, these cars take their design inspiration from the horse-drawn pumpkin.

But the car industry is not just making plans for when the petrol party is over, a number of companies have also been looking at giving motors enough smarts to drive themselves.

The sum of current technologies suggest that the self-driving car is not such a long way off
But what about those whose bread-and-butter is behind the wheel?

Formula 1 driver Jenson Button says: "Well it is probably going to put me out of a job, so it's probably not best, but I can see the way technology is going. But in a racing car you definitely need a driver."

Safety cameras

Computer screen in a Toyota Prius that aids parallel parking
Will parking problems soon be a thing of the past?
While Jenson Button does not need to worry just yet, the sum of current technologies suggest that the self-driving car is not such a long way off.

Lexus for example, has equipped one of its models with stereo cameras and radar to detect upcoming obstacles. It can also see what is creeping up on you from behind.

And if all the coddling means your attention wanders, there is a camera checking the driver's eyes are on the road.

Lexus' Pedro Pacheco says: "In the event that there is an obstacle in front of the car and the driver is at the same time looking at the side of the road, the system will sound a warning to alert the driver.

The technology's virtually there for the self-driving car but given the joy many get from driving, is everyone going to be that keen?
"If the situation persists then there will be a brief activation of the brakes just to alert the driver once again that there's an obstacle in front and the drive should take an evasive manoeuvre."

But it is not all high-speed high-jinks.

Toyota's Prius uses a rear-mounted camera and on-board computer to help drivers with the continual headache of parallel parking.

Just put the cursor where you want the car to be parked, take your hands off the wheel and let the car do the rest as you sit back and watch.

As for lane discipline, Citroen's given some models infra-red cameras which detect changes in the colour of the road surface and prompts the driver's seat to vibrate if the car wanders out of lane.

So the technology's virtually there for the self-driving car but given the joy many get from driving, is everyone going to be that keen?

'Karma car'

There comes a time in man's life when the dual tragedies of hair loss and weight gain can only be compensated for by a fast car. It is why car manufacturers are going to find it difficult to persuade people to get behind the wheel, or the control panel, of a car that drives itself.

Driving can after all be a lot of fun and with the self-driving car sounding like a party pooper the car industry is concentrating more on improving comfort and safety.

The Zsar Zen is a meditation on modern materials. With its transparent roof and jellied seats it has been described as a car with karma.

Driving pleasure

As for safety, Mercedes is turning its hand to helping drivers to see better at night.

We are all familiar with squinting through the headlights of oncoming traffic, well Mercedes Night Vision uses infrared cameras to see through the glare but with all this kit - night vision, safety systems, navigation, are drivers becoming overwhelmed?

The pleasure of driving is always to drive your car yourself and if you can put things in the car that can take away the stress from the driver, that is the idea
Mercedes-Benz Switzerland's Diego Tomasini
Formula 1 driver Jenson Button says: "If you took someone from 1905 and put him into a car these days, [there's a] massive, massive difference.

"It is been building up over the years and we are getting used to it. Navigation has been around for ages so these things you get used to. There are things done for safety reasons. For me that is fantastic."

Mercedes-Benz Switzerland's Diego Tomasini says: "I think it's not the self driving car we have to invent.

"It is possible, in fact it will be possible, but the pleasure of driving is always to drive your car yourself and if you can put things in the car that can take away the stress from the driver, that is the idea.

"Because the problem is not to invent a car that learns the road. I mean you are on a highway. You don't have to turn the steering wheel. It is possible to do but it is no fun to drive you know."

So the road ahead might mean the self-driving car is possible, but for now at least the opinion is divided over whether it is desirable.



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