Transport Theory

'Temporary Auto Pilot': Hands-free driving

Posting in Technology

Volkswagen's new technology could make roads safer - and save you the stress of having to drive through bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. Your car could just do it for you.

There are few things worse than being stuck in rush hour traffic, bored and exhausted yet forced to focus on the cars around you inching forward along the highway.

Those days may soon be over, if Volkswagen's latest innovation is any indication. Presented this week in Borås, Sweden, the automaker's "Temporary Auto Pilot" (TAP) system allows cars to drive largely without human assistance as fast as 80 miles per hour on the highway. Volkswagen sees the system as a link between current driver-assistance programs and the future of fully autonomous driving.

TAP technology bundles together semi-automatic functions like adaptive cruise control and Lane-Assist, which keeps cars from veering off-course. In "Pilot Mode," a semi-automatic driving mode, the technology allows the car to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of it, conforms to the driver's speed of choice, slows down as needed before bends in the road, and keeps the vehicle in its own lane. “Above all, what we have achieved today is an important milestone on the path towards accident-free car driving,” said Dr. Jürgen Leohold, Executive Director of Volkswagen Group Research.

"Temporary Auto Pilot" technology was presented to the European Union research and development project HAVEit ("Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport"), which was created to promote the development of technologies that would make driving easier and roads safer by preventing accidents. Launched in February 2008, HAVEit included 17 European partners from the automotive, supply, and scientific communities. The project received EUR 28 million (US$39.7 million) in investments from E.U. grants as well as from the participating organizations.

TAP may make drivers' lives easier, but it is not infallible. Leohold emphasizes that despite TAP's capabilities, drivers must still pay attention to the road and disable the system when necessary. "The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it," he said.

While not an entirely autonomous driving experience, like Google's or Audi's recent efforts, the TAP system is based on a "relatively production-like sensor platform, consisting of production-level radar-, camera-, and ultrasonic-based sensors supplemented by a laser scanner and an electronic horizon," according to Volkswagen.

For Motor Authority blogger Viknesh Vijayenthiran, this suggests that a production version of the technology could become available within a couple of years.

“One conceivable scenario for its initial use might be in monotonous driving situations, e.g. in traffic jams or over sections of a driving route that are exceedingly speed-limited,” Leohold said.

I, for one, can't wait.

Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure