week we trawl back through history to 1768 when Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the
first automobile – a steam-powered tricycle with a top speed of 3.6 km/h and
able to carry four people. He went onto construct two steam tractors for the
French Army. It doesn’t seem like a great start to a technology column with the
production of this car nearing its 250th anniversary and with over
one million patents having being filed that relate to the car industry one
would think it is a well-developed industry.

see it a little differently.

am sometimes frustrated by technology for the sake of technology. There is a
very funny exchange on one of my favourite geek shows (Big Bang Theory) that
highlights exactly what I am talking about. Penny: “How are flower berets gunna
appeal to men?“ Howard: “We add Bluetooth” Sheldon: “Brilliant. Men love
Bluetooth.” Penny: “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You wanna make a hair beret
with Bluetooth?” Sheldon: “Penny. Everything is better with Bluetooth!”
Unfortunately, this scene from a comedy is actually played out in many
situations across the world where technology is created for the sake of it rather
than for a practical purpose.

car industry is different. This is an incredibly competitive industry and one
where human lives are at stake every day. Technology in a car has to work. Having
said that, the technology in a modern car is quite incredible. You might
immediately think of the Google driverless car as being a technological marvel
but the average car that is driven out of the local showroom is an incredibly
powerful mobile computer. Some people yearn for the days when there was a
mechanical carburettor and simple physical devices in a car because a roadside
quick-fix was easier to apply but that would be like bemoaning the modern
spreadsheet and yearning for an abacus because computers sometimes stop

to the modern car.

of some of the features we are seeing today. Many sound like they come from
science fiction shows. Adaptive cruise control sends a radar beam from the
front of the car to monitor for vehicles in front so that your car can be
automatically slowed in the case of a slower vehicle in front of you. In
addition to making cruise control easier, it also applies additional braking
force if a collision is imminent. Adaptive headlights will automatically dim
when they see oncoming traffic and will turn the beam around corners to help
you see where you are going. Lane departure warning systems alert you if you
are moving lanes without an indicator meaning you may be drifting from one lane
to the next. Blind-spot detection is similar to lane departure warning systems but
this time it will warn you of a vehicle in a lane you are consciously trying to
move to. Rain-sensing wipers allow the car to decide how often and how fast the
wipers need to move. Tyre-pressure monitors alert you to discrepancies in tyre
pressures – although they don’t go a step further and automatically correct the
pressure for you…yet. Proactive roll avoidance will actually modify your
throttle and brake dependent upon what the car is doing to try and avoid a car
rollover. Once there was seemingly a competition amongst car manufacturers to
see who could have the most airbags (Toyota Scion IQ with eleven air bags won
that race) but now it seems to be a matter of who can have the most cameras
with 360 degree aerial views already available when parking a car. When driving
in the normal direction, cross-traffic alerts try and avoid collisions from
cars on the side. One I really struggle with is the death of the manual
handbrake. First it turned into a footbrake but it has now transformed into a
button. If I was a teenager again and wanted to impress a girl, what better way
to do it than to do a perfect ‘handbrakey’ in front of said girl? Electronic
handbrakes have taken that option away (which is probably a good thing as I am
no longer trying to impress girls other than my wife and she was never really
that impressed with a handbrake turn!)

of the items I have mentioned even touch on GPS and infotainment systems or car
entry systems and the list could go on. Luxury cars have over one hundred
electronic control units (ECUs) installed in them to manage the variety of
technologies present – with many communicating with each other as part of the
system. A modern car has over one hundred million lines of computer code which
is more than a jet fighter.

is all of this leading? The Tesla Model S is available to purchase today that
has automatic steering within a lane and automatic lane-changing with a tap of
the turn signal. But the next major change is autonomous.

29 June 2011, Nevada was the first US state to allow autonomous vehicles and
now, with nine areas in the US allowing autonomous vehicles, Google’s 23
vehicles have ticked over 2.4 million kilometres in driverless mode. Google is
not the first or only company with a focus on autonomy. Toyota alone has over
1,400 patents for self-driving vehicles. Many of the items mentioned in this
article are little steps along the autonomous path but there is no doubt that
the race is on for the first autonomous vehicle to be available on a showroom

me I can hardly wait. Driving along the highway with a computer in control
while I watch episodes of Big Bang Theory is very appealing. I will be looking
for one extra feature though – the car with the ‘handbrakey’ option will earn
my hard-earned cash.

Mathew Dickerson

Scroll to Top