Self-driving cars are still quite a few years off, but Volkswagen hopes that its so-called Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) could help avoid a few accidents until then. The system, demonstrated for the first time on a new Passat test mule, uses a barrage of sensors to momentarily assist in the control of the car, keeping it positioned in the lane, under the speed limit and automatically slowing when workers are in the road.
Altogether, the car is packed with a radar system, various cameras and ultrasonic sensors, a laser scanner and an "electronic horizon" that, together, give it an understanding of whereabouts on the road it is and what other traffic or pedestrians are around it. Rather than taking full control, Volkswagen is positioning TAP as an assistance aid for periods where accidents are increasingly likely: complex lane navigation, junctions and traffic jams. The system can take control, alert the driver with noisy alarms, and even perform an emergency stop.
It's not the first time we've seen autonomous systems included in a car: various luxury models from Mercedes, BMW and other marques include intelligent safety systems that couple dynamic cruise-control - identifying the traffic ahead and adjusting speed accordingly - with sensor arrays to increase the likelihood of emergency stop maneuvers being effective. However, manufacturers have been reluctant to give their systems too much independence, with questions over the legality and liability of auto-pilot options still unanswered.
Volkswagen hasn't said when - or if - TAP will make it to a production model, though as the continuation of a research program stretching back to 2008 it seems likely to do so. Meanwhile Google is pushing ahead with its own robotic car systems, in the hope that states allow it to roll the vehicles out onto the public highway.