IT sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Stressed out and stuck in a traffic jam, what does the driver do? He simply presses a button and lets his car drive itself.
The motorist is then free to take his hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals while he enjoys some much-needed relaxation.
When the traffic jam ends and the car reaches 50km/h, the auto-pilot – called Traffic Jam Assist – hands control of the vehicle back to the refreshed driver.
If you think the concept sounds too good to be true, think again.
Ford reckons the revolutionary technology will be available on several of its models within five years.
Experts say its widespread adoption could help speed up traffic caught in jams by up to 37 percent and reduce journey times by 20 percent by helping cars keep pace more efficiently with the flow of the traffic.
Prototypes are being tested at Ford’s European research and advanced engineering centre in Aachen, Germany, and in the US.
The system works using a camera and radar behind the rear-view mirror which scans and “reads” the road ahead by picking out the white lines which mark the lane, plus any other traffic.
Signals are then sent to the “brains”of the system in a computer central processing unit or “black box”.
Once a jam is detected, the car uses a voice command to ask the driver if they want to relinquish control of the car and switch to Traffic Jam Assist.
If the answer is “yes”, then the car assumes command – braking to stop a collision with the car in front or to slow down to meet its speed, and then accelerating to keep up with the flow of cars in front when they move off.
It will even recognise a car that “cuts in”ahead of the vehicle in front and take appropriate braking action if required.
The current system is only designed for freeways or dual-carriageways, rather than in urban traffic where the picture is further complicated by pedestrians and cyclists. But coping with that level of sophistication is just a matter of time.
Ford bosses point out that cars have become increasingly autonomous in recent years with additions such as adaptive cruise control which applies brakes if the traffic ahead slows down, “lane-assist” which will warn a sleepy or inattentive driver if a car is drifting out of its lane and nudge it back on track, and “park assist”which helps perform parallel parking.
Pim van der Jagt, managing director of Ford’s Aachen operation, insists that there is no legal impediment to introducing the system on British roads.
“It can be allowed now,” he said, “The car will stay in the middle of the lane even when the motorway takes a curve.
“It will accelerate, brake and steer itself in a jam.”
However, Ford bosses insist that the driver still has to pay some attention.
Switching to auto-pilot during a jam and then reading a newspaper would not be considered sensible, they say, even though some of their marketing graphics show a man waving a coffee cup and eating a doughnut while driving hands- and feet-free.
Ford’s global executive chairman, Bill Ford, great-grandson of the company’s founder Henry Ford, told a science conference in Barcelona in February that the fully self-driving car could be a reality by 2025.
He said the company was responding to forecasts that the one billion cars on the road today could quadruple by 2050. – Daily Mail