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Meet the car of the future: self-driving, with touchscreen walls and seats that rotate to create an “exclusive cocoon on wheels” in which you can work, rest and play.
Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz F015 concept car was revealed on Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — an event once dominated by Silicon Valley, but which is now increasingly focused on the intersection of cars and technology.
However, beyond being a showcase of their ambitions for the future, the vehicle also represents efforts by the German carmaker — like its global peers — to remain in the driving seat as technology companies such as Google steal a march on their turf.
“We see cars widening their functionality to become a third place to relax, work, play,” said Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chief executive. The autonomous car, he said, “enables people to do exactly what they want or need to do”.
Analysts believe autonomous vehicle technology stands to radically disrupt the auto industry. Self-driving cars could pave the way for new business models and new entrants to the sector, notably Google, posing a threat to traditional carmakers that are unable to keep up.
That pressure, combined with the potential to improve vehicle safety, is pushing carmakers deeper into the arena of technology, from basics such as automatic braking through to models that remove the need for drivers altogether.
“We think fully autonomous vehicles are a real possibility,” said Mark Fields, Ford chief executive, in remarks before the opening of CES. “For the industry, probably in the next five years you’ll see somebody introduce autonomous vehicles.”
Nevertheless, regulation, technology and unresolved ethical issues will stall development, say industry executives.
Auto ethicists need to resolve issues around how cars should respond in the event of an accident, said Dr Zetsche. Companies such as Daimler are grappling with scenarios such as how a car should behave when faced with the decision of crashing into a mother pushing a pram or driving into a ditch.
As autonomous driving evolves, Daimler already has an edge over its premium sector rivals.
The latest incarnation of the luxury S-Class saloon comes packed with an array of autonomous driving features. These include traffic jam assist, which allows the car automatically to follow the one in front at low speeds, and active lane-keeping assist, which automatically corrects the steering if the car starts to drift out of its lane. The company previously has also unveiled a semi-autonomous truck.
“Mercedes’ commercial head-start, advanced test programme and brand values leave us confident it will be one of the leaders in this field over the next decade,” Exane BNP Paribas told clients in a note last year.
Its cars, said Dr Zetsche, have logged hundreds of hours of autonomous driving “without getting a ticket or even the finger”.
Daimler’s rivals in Germany and elsewhere are, however, catching up fast and are also preparing to show off their capabilities in autonomous driving at CES.
BMW is expected to demonstrate a system that enables a driverless car to find its own way to a parking spot in a multistorey car park, activated via a smart watch.
Audi is testing an autonomous car on public roads from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. The car will have a range of almost 900km, and can change lanes and overtake other vehicles unaided.
Volkswagen, which is making its maiden appearance at the tech show this year, is demonstrating its trained parking system, which allows a car to semiautomatically park itself in familiar spots such as at home.
Ultimately, the company says, drivers will be able to use their smartphones as remote controls to park cars entirely automatically, although driving regulations will have to be updated before this is made commercially available.
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