I’ve been writing and reading a lot recently about autonomous cars.

Eight years ago this month, I wrote a piece for The Economist on the same topic following a visit to Opel’s test track near Russelsheim.

Bosch had already demonstrated semi-autonomous cars to motoring and technology journalists – the main feature I seem to recall was cruise control that would brake to maintain a safe distance from the car in front but there was no self-steering

At the time, GM suggested self-driving cars could be with us by 2008 – so five years ago. Part of the intro in The Economist told readers “The car uses updated technology combined with several existing innovations and, according to the manufacturer, could be in production by 2008. But, while the technology takes some of the boring bits out of driving, it falls far short of an automatic taxi service and, anyway, various legal, technical and social barriers to its introduction remain.”

And here we are in August 2013 and it would appear that many of those barriers still remain – especially the social ones.

Have we made any progress in the intervening years? Not as much as you might have thought. Martin Leach, former boss of Ford of Europe, Mazda Europe and Maserati and now chairman of automotive services provider Magma Group, still thinks there will be “a degree of resistance from the public initially, particularly when it comes to trusting the technology at high speeds. The biggest impact will be how the car socially repositions itself.”

He adds that one part of the autonomy equation is the fact that “young people do not find cars quite so exciting as previous generations.”

Or perhaps they think all cars should be like KITT, the self-driving car (above) from Knight Rider – that rather ridiculous but fun 1980s TV programme.

That would seem to work in the favour of autonomy – taking all the boring bits away. 

Now though there seems to be another problem. MSN reports how two electronic security experts from the USA have demonstrated it is possible hijack a car using nothing but a laptop and a cable, taking control of a vehicle with someone else at the wheel. You can read the full story here.

The two boffins (sorry, but I love that old-fashioned word for scientists) say they intend to make their research openly available following the Defcon security conference held in Las Vegas later this month.

The MSN story points out this is in contrast to the UK, where the High Court has granted an injunction banning computer scientist Flavio Garcia from publishing a paper on his success at cracking the secret codes used to open and start luxury cars made by companies in the Volkswagen Group, including Audi, Bentley and Porsche.

And if cars can be started remotely and then drive themselves, perhaps the rumoured remake of Knight Rider will inject new enthusiasm into autonomous driving.

But probably not. 

Tony Lewis
Tony Lewis
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