I'm creeping along in a mock traffic jam behind the wheel of a Ford S-Max hatchback - but my hands are not on the wheel. And neither, for that matter, are my feet on the brake or gas pedals. This lackadaisical mode of motoring is due to the fact that I am the first journalist to test "drive" the latest vehicle automation technology from the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan.
I'm on a test track at the University of Aachen, Germany - just down the road from Ford's European research centre - and I'm trying out Traffic Jam Assist, a system that's supposed to take control of your car in low-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic and let you get on with - well, anything else you want to do in the hour or so a day that Ford estimates most of its customers spend in snarled traffic.
While several projects aim to completely automate the car, it's interesting to note that the people who actually make vehicles, and who are on the sharp end of working out safety standards with government transport departments, are taking a stepwise approach, in which the car is only very gradually being automated. It started, of course, with the automatic gearbox, then adaptive cruise control - but now Ford and other manufacturers are shipping cars that use radar to stop automatically if you attempt to rear-end another car, to sense blind spot risks and which can park themselves with smart algorithms that use ultrasound to steer you - hands free - into the teeniest of parking spots.
Traffic Jam Assist is the latest of such technology. It harnesses a battery of sensors - cameras, laser-range finders, 2.4-gigahertz microwave radar and ultrasonic transducers - to give the car the dynamic situational awareness it needs. It is effectively a low speed version of adaptive cruise control.
Back in the car, and advised by Ford safety engineer Thomas Lukaszewicz, I drive initially in the middle of a lane behind another car and, as that car slows to a stop, so do I. Then I press a button to engage Traffic Jam Assist, take my hands off the wheel and my feet off the pedals, and wait for the guy in front to pull away. And when he does, the tech kicks in: a front facing camera seeks out the lane markings while the radar senses the car ahead and the laser its range - and my car then pulls away automatically, following it almost magically.
As the guy in front slows to a stop, so does my car. Next time around though, he nips out of my lane and another car sneaks into his place - yet none of this confuses the sensors in Traffic Jam Assist.
When the traffic gets back up to speed (and that ideal speed is still under research) an alert beeps to tell me to take control again. The same happens if too much lane switching occurs around you - letting you assess the situation and take control. That's done using the ultrasound sensors usually used for close-quarters sensing during automatic parking
"The objective is comfortable driving in a traffic jam, so you can really lean back in your seat and just do something else," says Lukaszewicz. "We're giving you your time back." If you're short of something to do, Ford is developing an internet radio app for its proprietary, Microsoft-developed in-car entertainment software, Sync, which links dashboard apps to car occupants' phones and tablets via Bluetooth.
All in all, Traffic Jam Assist looks a promising technology - even in prototype form it feels like a robust system - and it should be arriving in Ford production cars sometime between 2015 and 2020. Audi is developing a similar technology on a similar timeframe.
However, Ford and its rivals will need to ensure their ever-more-powerful car automation measures are controlled by properly proven safety-critical software.
Pim van der Jagt, director of Ford's Aachen research centre, says one of the chief software security aims is locking down the automated car of the future against hackers, once cars are communicating with each other about their locations using vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems. The idea is that cars will be able to automatically travel alongside each other in fast, fuel-efficient "platoons" in which each car knows the GPS location and heading of the others, avoiding collisions.
"Imagine if a hacker manages to create a 'ghost car', sending out information about a car that doesn't exist," says Van der Jagt. "It might appear that a car is speeding through the traffic at 100mph and is not going to stop. So all the cars will see that information and will try to get out of the way of this car that doesn't exist, creating total chaos. We need to develop security measures to stop that. But we think we have the technical answers."