Smart cars will let us nod off at the wheel

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The Independent Online
IN FUTURE motorways could have fast lanes, slow lanes - and lanes for drivers taking a nap. Within 50 years mass-produced cars will be able to drive themselves, and main roads will be equipped with computer chips to enable them to do so safely.

This vision of tomorrow's motoring world - from technologists at General Motors - includes vehicles able to tell when a driver is about to nod off. A "biofeedback sensor" in the dashboard will detect incipient slumber and the driver's seat will begin to vibrate in an attempt to bring the motorist back to full consciousness.

Having shaken the driver awake, a motorist can then steer the car towards the "nap lane", set a course using the car's satellite-guided navigation system, engage the autopilot and relax.

Your car will be able to "read" a road where embedded chips have replaced cat's eyes. This is not fantasy - in California General Motors has already tested an "intelligent highway" where drivers in effect become passengers.

The steering wheel may also become a thing of the past for those motorists who decide to stay awake. DaimlerChrysler has fitted joysticks to prototype cars, and claims that many drivers find them more efficient than a wheel.

The stick is not just for steering; it will control all movements of the car, including braking and accelerating. The idea is already familiar to anyone who plays computer games, but it might prove more difficult to operate for those of a certain age.

Even for drivers who prove joystick-incompatible, there is little chance of bumping into other objects because the car will be equipped with radar that can sense a potential accident and apply the brakes automatically.

The vehicle will read out your latest e-mail - presumably in an American accent - and take down and transmit a dictated reply. This will all be done from the comfort of a customised seat programmed to move the driver away from any point of impact in a crash - if the radar slips up.

And what of the noisy, smelly internal combustion engine? It will be replaced by an electric fuel cell from which the car is unplugged for a journey. The hydrogen-powered cell will supply the energy needs of your house as well.

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