It is either a sad indictment on the standards of modern driving, or a tribute to man’s technological progress that we edge ever closer to the day when the driver-less car will become a reality on our roads.

As the final presentation of the EU research project HAVEit (Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport) meeting, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, Executive Director Volkswagen Group Research, presented the company’s “Temporary Auto Pilot” system, declaring it “An important milestone on the path towards fully automatic and accident-free driving”.

Whether that does indeed prove to be true, one cannot argue that in a system of independent travel the one uncontrolled variable in the mix is.. you and I, namely the driver.

Volkswagen and other manufacturers are caught within a moral dilemma – do they design an accident free car which saves lives on the road, whilst at the same time dilute the value customers gain from driving (and the reason many of us buy cars in the first place), or do they continue to develop cars for the driver’s pleasure knowing that this is in fact signing a death sentence for the thousands of people who will be involved in fatal crashes each year?

What would you do?

From a legal as well as an ethical standpoint car makers have little choice in the matter – no manufacturer can afford to produce a product these days which is more dangerous than it needs to be. Liability law is becoming ever more oppressive with corporations expected to introduce new safer technologies as and when they are available.

Of course everyone could just stop making such safer technologies, but in a competitive market safety (quite rightly) sells cars, just as much as environmental impact and performance. In fact performance, handling and other such driver-centric virtues are very much in the minority of reasons why customers buy cars, so all we can hope is that drivers are given the choice whether to switch such systems on.

However even that is a slippery slope. One can imagine in future that some insurance companies will make it a mandatory condition that ‘Auto-Pilot’ systems are fitted (and enabled) for every journey.

Welcome to progress in the 21st century…

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Volkswagen’s “Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP)” system can drive semi-automatically up to a speed of 81 mph on motorways, “nonetheless, the driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control,” says Leohold, “The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it.”

TAP maintains a safe distance to the vehicle ahead, drives at a speed selected by the driver, reduces this speed as necessary before a bend, and maintains the vehicle’s central position with respect to lane markers.

[/two_columns] [two_columns_last ]Volkswagen Passat fitted with TAP[/two_columns_last]

The system also observes overtaking rules and speed limits. Drivers must still continually focus their attention on the road, so that they can intervene in safety-critical situations at any time.

EUR 28 million has been set aside for investment in the HAVEit Project, the majority from EU grants, and a further EUR 11 million from 17 project partners, of which EUR 7 million was invested by the automobile industry.