The end of the road? What driverless cars mean for the epic road trip

Greg Dickinson
Will the dawning of driverless spell the end of the road for road trips? - This content is subject to copyright.

Oh, road trips. My memories of you are as sugar-coated as a Smith Kendon travel sweet.

My first childhood holidays were road trips. My parents would pack up our 1956 Land Rover Discovery (God rest its soul) and we’d hit the road. My two older brothers and I would sit in the back, taking turns on the Game Boy as we made our way from Hertfordshire to exotic-sounding places like “Iceland” and the “North Cape of Norway”.

Greg Dickinson and family on a road trip across Iceland in 1993 Credit: Matt Dickinson

There are sensory delights to a road trip. A good playlist can create a kind of audio-geographical memory, imprinting a song to a place (one of mine is Starman by David Bowie, now geotagged to a particular pass in the Trossachs). Then there’s the abundance of mint; I sometimes eat Polos to fool my brain into thinking I’m on a road trip.

But there’s also something indescribable about the joys of a road trip. There is a certain feeling (Robert MacFarlane probably knows a Swedish word for it) of embarking on a long journey in complete control of a vehicle, not knowing what detours or stop-offs you might take along the way. Maybe it’s just “freedom”. If it is, there’s something childishly exciting about this version of it.

But it recently dawned on me that my children, and almost certainly my children’s children (note, none of the above are born yet) may never embark on a road trip as we know it – for, if the forecasts are to be believed, they will live in a world of driverless cars.

There are more than a dozen car and tech companies developing driverless vehicles right now. Tesla, Uber, Google, Toyota, BMW, Ford, and – if you are one for the rumour-mill – Apple. Another is the German tyre-manufacturer Continental, who are taking a sidewards step into the world of autonomous vehicles.

I caught up with Soeren Pinkow from Continental to find out what the road trip will look like in the not-too-distant future and, crucially, to know whether my retirement road trip around Scotland (likely 2060 at the earliest – blimey) will be spent swilling a glass of crème de menthe while watching a hologram of Bowie performing Starman on the bonnet.

When will the first driverless road trips happen?

"We are currently assuming that highly automated driving will, from 2020, not only be technically possible on highways, but also regulated by law.

"By 2025, we plan to develop the first mass-production-ready, fully-automated driving systems, for higher speed ranges and more complex driving scenarios as well. Yet even in the medium term – that is before 2025 – thanks to active and intelligent surround view systems, vehicles will be capable of fully automated self-parking, even when the driver is no longer inside the vehicle."

How would a driverless road trip work?

"Figure out where your next road trip will take you to, get into your car, type in your destination and you're off. In times of digitalisation, a digital checkup may be required. Updates can be made 'over the air' and so existing hardware in the vehicle can activate new or extended functionalities."

Key Questions | Driverless cars

Will driverless cars take away the freedom of a road trip?

"Automated driving provides people with a means of deciding how to exercise control of their vehicles. Decision-making is not taken away from drivers; on the contrary, they enjoy greater freedom of action. They are always in a position to switch off the systems or to override them. 

"When you are on a curvy mountain road and you want to enjoy the driving pleasure, you can drive manually. But when you are on a highway and have to drive straight ahead for miles you will enjoy that you can sit back and relax while the car does the driving."

So driverless might actually make driving more enjoyable?

"Automated driving in no way spoils the pleasure of driving – far from it: driverless enhances driving safety and comfort. Tedious stop-and-go in traffic jams is, presumably, not regarded as pleasurable driving; why shouldn't I let an assistant take over such tasks from me?

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, is one of the firms developing driverless cars Credit: Getty

"If the traffic flow becomes a bit more lively, drivers can, of course, decide at any time when they want to resume control. Automated driving also gives the journey more variety so that when drivers themselves are driving, they do so with greater attention and concentration."

How would an automated car deal with, for example, the single-track roads in Scotland?

"It will take some time until you can drive automated on tricky, single-track roads. A prerequisite for that is a high-precision 3D map of the surroundings and a car that can detect the entire 360-degree surrounds of a car combined with V2X technologies for communicating with other traffic participants, as well as receiving information from the cloud."

How do you flick between "driverless" and manual?"

"This is achieved by a man-machine interface and is achieved in several stages so that a safe handover to the driver is assured. If the driver cannot takeover the driving task, the Cruising Chauffeur System will bring the vehicle to a safe stop, taking into account the traffic situation and the conditions around the vehicle."

road or rail?

Will I be able to enjoy a glass of wine on a driverless road trip?

"Using Germany as an example: once the draft law on automated driving comes into force, a partial transfer of the driving task to the vehicle will have become possible in Germany. The driver may devote his or herself to other matters while the system is driving in automated mode. However, the driver is still under an obligation to exercise due care and must, when requested from the vehicles, be able to resume the driving task."