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Driverless cars edging closer to reality

EU legal chiefs are currently in talks with car manufacturers about changing laws to allow self parking cars. Many motorists have read of Google's efforts in this area but one far more mainstream motoring company is determined to lead the way. Toyota has been busy developing a range of new technologies that will ultimately allow their cars to be driven by computer instead of driver. The goal, says Toyota, is a car that is capable of zero casualties during its lifetime.

EU legal chiefs are currently in talks with car manufacturers about changing laws to allow self parking cars. Many motorists have read of Google's efforts in this area but one far more mainstream motoring company is determined to lead the way. Toyota has been busy developing a range of new technologies that will ultimately allow their cars to be driven by computer instead of driver. The goal, says Toyota, is a car that is capable of zero casualties during its lifetime. While Google may have stolen much of the recent limelight, car companies like Toyota have been busily working in this area for decades. Now, it seems, they are getting very close to a finished product. 

Experiments with driverless vehicles go back to the 1920s and cars guided by wires. The technology wasn't good enough though and the industry had to wait until the 1970s for more serious tests. These took place in Germany, Japan and the US as the rapid advance of computers made the idea of driverless cars more achievable. Google seems to have moved the subject back into the spotlight and into the mainstream of car development as Mercedes, among others, demonstrated a driverless car at September's Frankfurt Motor Show. Experiments to test such vehicles on public roads have been given the go ahead in Germany and the UK as makers vie with each other to gain first mover advantage in an area that has the potential to ignite a flagging European car industry. 

There are many different takes on the technology, from full automation, like Google, to enhanced driver assistance and safety features. Car makers like Volvo and Toyota cite safety as the driving force behind the new technologies, with both publicly targeting 'zero casualty' cars as the ultimate goal. Chief executive of Toyota Europe, Didier Leroy, explains: "The key element is safety. We need to keep the driving pleasure for the driver, but we also want to keep the driver safe. We have the technologies to make a driverless car, but the problem is making it affordable; and legal responsibility is a big issue. This is not a game. You aren't playing on a PlayStation with a second or third life." 

Certainly the technologies are already there and the progress in the next few years will be around changing laws to accommodate them and deciding on international standards, such as the wavelength used for vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communications to enhance safe cruise control. Manufacturers are understandably cagey about launch dates but Toyota may be aiming for 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics.

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