An onboard display monitor in a self-driving car. Picture: REUTERS/YUYA SHINO
An onboard display monitor in a self-driving car. Picture: REUTERS/YUYA SHINO

It's the biggest smartphone charger I've ever used. It's called the Audi A5 coupe, and, to most people, it looks like a mere two-door car.

But it has one feature I hadn't seen before in a car: a plug-free pad for charging phones that use the Qi wireless charging standard.

These include the Samsung Galaxy S6, S7 and S8 models.

In truth, it's not a big deal, and will soon be standard.

But it symbolises the extent to which the automotive industry is waking up to a future that has already arrived.

This is a time in which the ordering of our lives revolves around hand-held devices, and cars must adapt to these devices.

Like the smartphone, the car must become more intelligent, convenient and supportive of our lives.

For this reason, the autonomous vehicle, or self-driving car, is not only a good idea, but an essential one. Cars of the near future must get us where we want to go, and not get in our way.

It is a standard argument to say that self-driving cars can't work in a country like South Africa, where most vehicles will remain human-propelled for the foreseeable future.

However, the argument is slowly being wrested away from the naysayers.

The Audi A5 is a good example. It includes not only the "lane assist" feature that already alerts the drivers of several high-end cars when they are veering out of their lanes, but also "active lane assist", which steers the vehicle back into a lane when it detects the car moving over the white lines.

If the driver is signalling a lane change, the function doesn't kick in.

But then there is "side assist", which detects vehicles coming up dangerously close in the next lane - and forces the car back into its own lane.

The main drawback of this feature is that it depends on clearly demarcated lanes, which are not pervasive on South African roads.

Nevertheless, it represents the arrival of autonomous driving in a standard vehicle, and does not depend on the largesse of licensing authorities - regarded by many as the main obstacle to the roll-out of self-driving cars.

Then there is the new Land Rover Discovery, which, like the A5, comes with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, as long as the owner inserts an appropriate sim card in the vehicle.

Again, that is just a symbol for the marque's drive into the future.

The real taste of the future in the Discovery is an off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control, which allows the driver to hand control over to the vehicle when the terrain is particularly difficult.

The driver still has to steer, but ATPC takes over all other functions, maintaining vehicle speed, managing braking and applying torque to each wheel for maximum traction.

It's not a great leap for such features to evolve to on-road driving as well.

Already, Land Rover's Autonomous Emergency Braking system spots potential collisions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated.

The Audi A5 offers similar technology, which it calls "pre sense", to warn the driver when there is any danger of collisions, and to apply brakes.

If you believe self-driving will never come to South Africa, you're already wrong.

Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee

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