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Self-drive cars the way of the future
Supplied The traffic jam assist system fitted in an A6 gives the driver the option of letting the car drive autonomously.

_IF WE ARE _to believe the movies, by now we should either be on the verge of flying cars and hoverboards a la Back to the Future II, or at least capable of creating machines able to perform complex tasks autonomously like in the Terminator franchise.

While the first lot of technology is still some way away, the latter appears closer than ever in the automotive industry, with many car companies aiming to create vehicles able to drive themselves in certain situations - although hopefully the cars don't become self-aware and we're forced to battle it out in an apocalyptic nuclear war in a few years.

US experts recently acknowledged Audi for its new piloted parking and self-driving technology, with Popular Science magazine naming it Product of the Future and the innovation taking out the Best Automotive Technology gong at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Audi has uploaded footage of its working prototypes on to the internet and it makes for impressive viewing. The piloted parking feature allows the driver to exit the car, activate the function with a smartphone app and then walk away as the vehicle not only parks itself in a car bay but also navigates its way through a garage, find its spot and then switches off the engine once it's parked.

With no need for the driver and passengers to exit the vehicle once it's stopped, the car can squeeze into the tightest space.

The same phone app can have the car turn itself on and navigate its way back to the driver.

Audi's autonomous driving function, meanwhile, could help take the frustration out of peak- hour commuting.

The system constantly monitors the speeds of the car and surrounding vehicles and, if it detects a traffic jam, gives the driver the option of letting the car drive autonomously with the push of a button.

In speeds under 60km/h the car will steer, accelerate and brake by itself, leaving the driver to read a newspaper/play Angry Birds/ have a snooze (the last one's probably not wise).

When traffic has cleared a beep alerts the driver to retake control.

It's not yet known when the system will be made available in Audi's production cars but it seems this technology is hinting at fully- automated vehicles in the future, which would be revolutionary.

Removing human error from driving would slash the number of crashes and deaths on our roads.

Could drink-driving and driver fatigue become problems of the past? Would taxis be needed? Could truckies be replaced by haulage vehicles in which you enter the destination and leave it to its own devices?

Could family holidays involve sitting in the back playing cards while the vehicle takes you to your holiday spot?

Of course, this would likely sound horrible to those who love driving and, admittedly, it all seems more like sci-fi than reality.

But fully automated cars whizzing down Forrest Highway could be seen sooner than you'd expect.

Google has been testing automated models of Toyota Prius in the Nevada Desert for about three years and other major manufacturers - such as Ford, GM, Volkswagen and BMW - have all tested autonomous cars.

So, how far away are they?

Google founder Sergey Brin said in September last year that its autonomous cars had driven more than 480,000km without crashes, including time spent negotiating tricky, congested urban roads.

Mr Brin said he expected self- driving cars to be available to the public in five years.

Late last year, German company Continental received approval from Nevada to test their own autonomous vehicles, although the company says it isn't aiming to have fully autonomous vehicles until 2025.

But, in a sign we're not far off taking our hands off the wheel full-time, Mercedes-Benz is aiming to be the first company to bring a semi-autonomous vehicle to market which will have capabilities similar to the Audi traffic-jam feature with its new S-Class limousine set for release this year.

The German car-making giant says its stereo camera technology creates a three-dimensional image around the car and avoids pedestrians and other obstacles.

Mercedes-Benz says the move towards full automation will be gradual, starting with parking and slow speeds before eventually moving up to freeway use.

It seems the main hold-up in the march to automated cars won't be the technology but road rules and legislation.

Though three US states - Nevada, California and Florida - have all passed legislation permitting driverless cars to be tested on public roads, widespread reform would likely take time and is no guarantee to get the nod across all States and territories the world over.

And then, of course, will there be enough demand for such vehicles?

Mercedes-Benz concedes drivers want the improved safety and comfort available via autonomous cars rather than a desire for complete lack of input.

The company also admitted that the thought of handing control over to a car in all situations didn't sit well with many drivers.

Still, autonomous cars certainly seem like playing some sort of a part in the future of motoring.

So maybe Hollywood wasn't all that far off the mark after all.

Removing human error from driving would slash the number of crashes and deaths on our roads.