Hands off: A semi-autonomous BMW car, shown here in a test on a German autobahn.
Information technology is transforming cars faster than anyone expected, and it can do more than let drivers update their statuses on Facebook. It could also save them a lot of fuel.
These days, the design and control of more fuel-efficient engines and hybrid vehicles depends on computers. Yet the potential of IT to save fuel goes beyond improving a car’s fuel economy rating. It could save fuel by gradually reducing—and, before too long, eliminating—the need for drivers.
Drivers cause all sorts of problems. They hit the brakes too much and accelerate too quickly. That can waste a third of the gas on a typical drive.
Bad driving also creates traffic jams. In the U.S., drivers waste two billion gallons of fuel each year while stuck in traffic, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. Just think of the gas burned in that 2010 Chinese traffic jam that lasted almost two weeks.
Until recently, the idea of taking drivers out of the loop has always seemed a distant possibility. Engineers in Detroit imagined a complex system in which all vehicles on the road would be controlled by a central computer. The infrastructure required would be expensive. And the system wouldn’t work until every vehicle was equipped with the necessary technology, says Lawrence Burns, the retired head of research and development at General Motors.
But now, Burns says, technologies pioneered in several companies are making it “a lot faster for the world to get on with it.” Processors are speeding up and sensors are becoming cheaper, and almost every automaker now offers cars equipped with adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to sense vehicles in the lane ahead and change the car’s speed to avoid accidents. And Google’s experimental automated Priuses proved that cars could drive themselves on public roads surrounded by conventional vehicles. In 2013, BMW will start selling a production version of its i3 concept car, which can drive itself at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.