By on August 22, 2006

darpa_challenge_sandstorm222.jpg Driving talent is as rare as the ability to play a sitar. Driver training is a joke. Driver testing is the punch line. In fact, there’s only one thing keeping the highway fatality rate from ascending epidemically: the car. Electronic braking aids, traction control, stability control, handling improvements, crumple zones, airbags, seatbelt systems, stadium-bright lighting, pavement shredding brakes, tires so good they make ‘70’s rubber look like wagon wheels— these are our saviors. And it’s time to take the next step: automation.

Cars should take all meaningful driving tasks away from the driver: braking, accelerating, steering, cornering, judging distances, interpreting (or even simply noticing) traffic signals and signs. I’m talking about a fully automated automobile; one where Nav screens and multi-media controller thingies no longer say, “Don’t be distracted by me while you’re driving.” A car where the computerized brain monitors your attention and begs you to be distracted, to play with the screen rather than messing with the car’s important controls.

There’s precedent. The now-ancient joke among airline pilots is that glass-cockpit crews still number three: pilot, copilot and a German shepherd trained to bite either of them if they touch any of the controls. Airliners are already totally automated, from takeoff to landing, and the skies have never been safer. If highly-trained professional pilots subvert their skills to safety technology for the greater good, shouldn’t we remove control of our two ton transports from Joe Sixpack?

When I say “automatic cars” I don’t mean the goofy things we used to see in Popular Science in the ‘80s: a freight train of Pontiac Bonnevilles doing 60 mph down The Highway of the Future, their bumpers six inches apart as they followed a buried signal cable like six beagles sniffing a collie’s cooter. Buried cables cost a gazillion dollars and require ripping trenches down the middle of every highway lane in the country. As Bill Gates discovered fifteen minutes after installing miles of fiber optic in his mega-mansion on Lake Washington, wireless rules.

And so it is with automated cars. Thanks to burgeoning wireless technology, everything to make the automated car work is already on shelves or in stationary orbit. We have all the tools we need to make a “driverless car”: motion and distance sensors, transponders, GPS receivers and telematics (the real-time, two-way systems used by On-Star, Lo-Jack, EZ-Pass, etc.); electronic steering, throttle and brakes. Create some complex algorithms and software to combine everything into an intelligent and (relatively) failsafe control system and you’re done. Literally.

If you doubt the automated car is coming, don’t. Mercedes’ intelligent cruise control– an automatic system that maintains a safe distance between cars– is a sign of things to come. From there, it’s a short step to building cars that talk to each other, facilitating the same sort of automated collision avoidance systems used by jetliners. And so it goes. Tires will calculate their coefficient of friction and adjust the throttle accordingly. Satnav will keep your car within its lane. And then it's stop signs and traffic lights that order your car to stop. Eventually you’ll have no more to say about your speed than you do aboard Amtrak.

Enthusiasts will argue that forcing drivers into automated cars is using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. “Better driver education” is needed. “More testing. Stricter standards. Relicensing every two years. Traffic tickets for bad driving technique, not for skillful speeding.” Oh, absolutely. I also think driver’s licenses should be restricted to college graduates. That anybody weighing over 300 pounds should be made to live in North Dakota. And every U.S. citizen should be required to pass an annual spelling and grammar test in order to be granted an Internet-access license. That isn’t going to happen either.

Before posting dozens of specious reasons why the fully automated car can’t or won’t work— people won’t stand for it, lawyers won’t allow it, you can’t cover every country road, etc.– once again, consider the underlying rationale. We— you, me, every multi-tasker scarfing a breakfast burrito, every bozo in a pickup truck convinced he’s Dale Junior, every amateur street racer driving a ZO6 with all the talent of an XBox twiddler— are the problem. For that reason alone, the fully automated car will happen. As for cultural considerations…

Two thousand years, your horse was just as much a mark of wealth, virility and personal skill as a 911 Turbo or WRX is today. Millions of Saracens, Conquistadors, cavalrymen and cowboys would have told you that you were full of manure to suggest that one day, nobody but jockeys and hobbyists would ride a horse. I think it was Ferdinand Porsche who said that the last horse on earth will be a racehorse, and that the last car will be a racecar. So take heart, enthusiasts.


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84 Comments on “DIY RIP?...”

  • avatar

    Just don’t let Bill Gates write the software that runs it…

  • avatar

    They already exist: it’s called a train.

    The sheer expense and wastefullness of millions of highly automated vehicles would actually make something like light rail a reality.

  • avatar

    I’m looking forward to the day that I can get in the car as the only occupant, have a nap, and wake up at my destination.

  • avatar

    Yes, Blue Screens of Death should not cause actual death…

    Totally automatic cars may be inevitable. I doubt it, personally, although there have been times when I was driving (say from Montgomery to Mobile, for instance) when I would very gladly have let the car do all the work while I took a nap. Working from your plane analogy, I would point out that 1) there are a lot fewer aircraft than there are cars and far fewer aircraft manufacturers than there are car companies; 2) aircraft, hopefully, receive a level of maintenance that most cars do not; 3) automated aircraft are very, very expensive.

    I don’t doubt that with improvements in computer technology, sensors and so forth that a car could drive itself better than I could. I also don’t doubt that I could take a bus to work instead of driving. People WANT to drive. All over the world, you find people who want to drive. That, coupled with the sheer expense automated cars would cost, the standards issues, the threat of liablility… now, if you hit someone with your car, it is your fault. When your 2018 Skoda-Kia blows a fuse and veers into oncoming traffic, it will be Skoda-Kia’s fault. I don’t see car makers deploying the technology without some kind of blanket indemnity.

    What kind of red-blooded driver is going to buy a car they won’t be able to drive? I have a friend who hates to drive and I’m sure she would be happy to have a car do it. But the rest of us, the horrible driving, speeding, following too closely, stop-light running rest of us?

    We’ll take our chances, thanks. Leave the driving to us.

  • avatar

    I couldn`t agree more with Stephans views on the driving we see today.maybe some day we will see the high thats is invisioned.
    But hey the jury is still out on A.B.S.In the meantime all of us need to hone our driving skills everytime we get behind the wheel.

  • avatar

    I can see fully automated cars in the future, the near future, in fact. The biggest problem that I can see is the comming mix of automated and non-automated cars on the road at the same time. If an onboard computer on my car could negotiate with another onboard computer on another car diving could get very relaxing. But as long as there’s a human controlled 1984 Camaro wandering about bouncing off of stuff the automated cars don’t have a chance.

    My solution? Roads that are for automated cars only and these are the only times that full-automation is allowed. Maybe make one of the interstate lanes for automated only or something like the HOV lane.

    Who knows…I’m just thinking while typing here.

  • avatar
    David Yip

    It’s interesting that you have a picture of a DARPA Grand Challenge participant.

    This year’s DARPA challenge is an Urban Challenge, and the requirements are just as you describe – a fully autonomous car navigating city streets, with lane change logic, collision avoidance, etc, etc.

    We’ll see how succesful they are.

  • avatar

    One flaw in your horse-car analogy.

    End of horse as a transport did not mean loss of personal freedom in transportation.

    End of car as a transport will mean a loss of personal freedom in transportation.

  • avatar

    I can’t say how concievable this is on a wide scale, but we’re already seeing signs of it (i.e. Mercedes-Benz’s cruise control).

    Anyways, would anyone driving a Chevy Malibu really care if their car was doing the driving for them? Only people who really enjoy driving would be bothered by this, and it’s easy enough to provide an override for the auto-driver.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Why are people automatically assuming that automated vehicles will not be able to co-exists with older, driver-piloted vehicles? Like, computers would suddenly start going 200 mph and taking the raceline around bends?

    I think a mixed use vehicle is first. Auto pilot for cities to lessen traffic, and a switch to manual mode for when you want to head to the hills.

  • avatar

    I think the horse is a good analogy; you may command a horse to go faster, slow down or turn left, but the mechanics of all these actions are controlled by the horse. The horse will automatically avoid obstacles, stop in imminent danger and never crash into another horse. You could train a horse to stop at a red light (and gallop like the blazes at a yellow light) and it wouldn’t annoy so many people if you were on a cell phone while riding a horse.

    Maybe we should just get horses to drive our cars ?

  • avatar

    If the morons that currently plaugue our highways are put into automated cars that don’t clog the left lane, always signal turns and lane changes, don’t lag 200 yards behind the car in front of them on the highway, actually run the speed limit (instead of 5 to 10 below) on 2-laners, and generall do the courteous things that those morons were taught to do, but don’t, then I’m all for it. It would make life much easier for those of use who are passionate about driving.

    Jonny, do you take the raceline around bends? LOL!

  • avatar
    Dr. JP

    I’m sure you’ve looked at the advances being put in place in the recent DARPA challenges to get autonomous vehicles to cross a desert. Now, moving through a city is magnitudes easier since the solution space of getting from point A to point B is much smaller. There are also some things that can be done to simplfy the solution space further: fewer changes in speed limits (maybe limit to only 20 or 40 mph); exactly defined speeds (your car does 20 mph in a 20 zone, not 18 and not 25; makes all sorts of calcualtions easier) fewer stop lights (let the cars all move through the intersections in an interlacing pattern), etc. We are realisitically looking at a minimum of 20 years before this becomes a reality (progress of this type is frequently way overestimated; I’ve learned that lesson in my field of molecular diagnostics)

    I’ll add a 4) Planes fly in three dimensions, making collisions much more unlikely (it is just when collisions occur, they are almost completely catastrophic).
    There might also have to be a change to insurance to deal with the blown fuse scenario: make the manufacturer’s insure the cars. Again, realistically at least 20 years away.

    I enjoy driving, but that commute both ways each morning is not really enjoyable driving; I could better use that time. And, no, I don’t have access to a bus or train for my 12 mile drive.

  • avatar

    Very interesting subject. I remember reading about the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System (I think) in R&T way back in the ’80s. Considering it’s been 20 years, and the closest we’ve gotten is speed regulating cruise control and lane departure warning systems, you can forgive my pessimism.

    That said, the enabling technologies are progressing at rapid rates. I believe we probably will see fully automatic prototypes (the Japanese are working feverishly on this, I hear) within the next half-decade, but I would guess that it will be at least 20 years before you can buy one. There are far too many legal and liability issues that need to be dealt with.

    Oh, and the automation of aircraft takeoff and landing is facilitated by a system of beacons at every major airport. They aren’t done with GPS, so an on-the-ground system is still required.

  • avatar


    End of horse as a transport did not mean loss of personal freedom in transportation.

    End of car as a transport will mean a loss of personal freedom in transportation.

    I bet there were plenty of vocal journalists back in the day that decried how the car would pin us to the roads and cause anything not within sight of the roads to fade out of our memory, thereby taking away our freedom. Later on, I bet some mentioned a loss of freedom when the first major paved highways were built and dirt roads went out of style. Then the same things were said about the loss of our highway culture when Interstates were built. Today, the slide is just continuing.

    Like Jonny said, the first ones will be mixed mode. Someday we will be on this site complaining about the lack of freedom in the first autodrive-only cars and how we wish they would keep making the mixed mode cars.

  • avatar

    I agree with TW. I see interstate highways being the first area where an auto-drive lane is feasible. Change HOV lanes to auto-drive and you have more incentive for people to adopt the technology.

    It’s work a lot like the nav system in my ’05 Suburban. You get in, program your destination (or select a previous one), choose a route and then follow the guidance. Once you reach a merge point for the auto-drive lanes, the computer alerts you and takes over the task of driving. At your exit point, the computer again alerts you, waits for acknowledgement, and you take over once more.

    The main problem is the infrastructure, not the technology. It’s a huge political battle just to get a new HOV lane designated (at least where I live) and that just involves painting some lines and putting up signs…

  • avatar

    End of car as a transport will mean a loss of personal freedom in transportation.

    Why would it? The car (or robo-transport-pod) will remain as a transport, just not driven by drunken/distracted/unskilled/stupid/horny/aggro people. You’ll still be able to hop in go downtown when you feel like it, you’ll just be able to surf the web or read a book or have a beer as you do so – which sounds pretty nice. And freeing – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to be able to cut loose on a Friday night without penalty or paying for a cab, or sleep your way through an overnight road trip, or drink coffee and relax on the way to work? And if the urge to drive grabs you, then you can own something really fun to drive like a Caterham, instead of buying a Camry or a Suburban that must satisfy all concievable needs.

    One other thing: with a reduced need for lots of power, and fewer accidents, cars will get lighter and cheaper to operate. A tiny diesel, or a fuel cell, or batteries, are all you need to motivate a city commuter. I can also see fewer traffic jams, less road-rage, fewer drunk drivers, higher productivity…

  • avatar

    If they can’t get rid of guns in this country they sure as shit won’t be getting rid of driver operated cars. Some people may eventually use them but I guarantee in my lifetime you won’t be required to. Hell I had to sell my automatic transmission car after only 3 years because I couldn’t stand not being in control of the vehicle.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    That’s it, if anybody’s looking for me – I’ll be out on my horse.

  • avatar

    Nice pipe dream, but I don’t think we’re as close to this automotive utopia as you think we are.

    Let’s say we were to begin implementing some form of an automated driving system. The first place to start would be the freeways where the paths are pretty predictable, the roadways are fairly free of obstructions, are standardized for the most part, and are probably where most car accident fatalities occur. You would need an automated system that could co-exist with human driven cars, which is pretty doable I think. Sensors all around the car you given enough data on the surrounding vehicles. You would want algorithims to tell the car how to handle the erratic driver in the lane ahead (and put an extra car lengths or two of distance between), people who speed up when you try to pass them (purposefully or subconsciously), etc. This is the easy stuff.

    The hard stuff is developing a system that know where the road boundries are. This won’t work shy of some highly advanced visual-based AI-backed system that can still make out the edges of the lane and which lane it’s in even when the painted lines are faded to almost nothing or are non-existent. Then the system will need to be able to identify the signs and lines for the on and off ramps. Beacons in the signs could do some of this.

    Finally, you have the problem of getting people to actually use the thing. Since you’re going to have to be able to switch the autopilot off for certain situations you’ll have people driving down the freeways with their autopilots off because they would rather be “in control”. Much the same reason why you can often see cars that you know are equipped with cruise control travelling at erratic speeds. Yup, they’re in control all right.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Neoncat93, I owned and flew an essentailly automated airplane for five years–a single-engine, high-performance (205 mph cruise) Falco with full autopilot tied to the GPS. It was not “very, very expensive.” And your talk of “wanting to drive” and “red-blooded drivers” not very long ago applied to millions of horsemen, as I pointed out.

    Dean, yes, you’re right in that precision ILS is a part of aircraft automation, but “beacons” or yore (VOR, DME, ADF) are pretty much out of the picture now in the sophisticated setups. But in any case, what’s wrong with having “beacons” throughout the highway system. They’d probably be bout the size of AA batteries. There’d be one in every stop sign and traffic light, for example, to command your car to stop.

    Steve_S, you’ll still have driver-operated cars, but they won’t be permitted on Interstates and the typical four-lane highways all over the country that carry the bulk of local traffic. You’ll be forced to go play on two-lane backroads…just as you are now. Don’t know how old you are, but if you’re 25, say, it _will_ happen in your lifetime.

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    Allow me, just for a moment, to bust out the ol’ tinfoil hat.

    Many of the points made in the article and the ensuing comments make sense for a whole bunch of reasons. However, before we go hell-bent-for-leather creating systems and infrastructure to remove the driver from the picture in order to reduce traffic, make the roads safer, etc, I suggest we all read Dune, Fail Safe, and perhaps re-watch Crimson Tide and the Terminator series.

    The more we become reliant on technology – regardless of the benefits the technology will bring – the more likely it is that we will suffer terribly when the technology breaks. You can put in all the redundancy systems you want, sooner or later, something breaks, malfunctions, falls out, doesn’t get replaced, doesn’t get maintained and a ripple effect occurs.

    The obvious response to a mechanical/technological breakdown is “well, then the driver assumes control and handles the problem. Well, didn’t we introduce all these systems specifically TO REMOVE the driver from the equation? Why would we expect, with all of these aids & systems in place, for the ‘average passenger’ to be able to handle a situation?

    Technology is a double-edged sword, and increased reliance on technology – in this case the removal of the human control thereof – only sharpens the edge closest to our own throats. There’s a reason pilots are highly trained and have to go through all sorts of testing and qualifications before they can sit in that fully-automated cockpit.

    I like the idea, but still feel that ultimately, we need better driver training and testing.

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    One thing you need to keep in mind is the generation coming up now has never lived in a world where computers didn’t control everything from toasters to traffic flow. They’ll be much more accepting of totally computer-controlled cars than will those of us who are old enough to remember what it’s like to look under the hood of a car and actually see the ground on either side of the engine – if there are still any of us around when it happens.

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    And Dr X, you’re absolutely right – people today are so dependant on technology they can’t function if they don’t have a machine to do their thinking for them. If you want to see this in action, just change the amount of money you’re giving the clerk at almost any store after they’ve entered an “amount tendered” in the cash register. Without the machine doing the math, they’re totally clueless about how to figure the change you have coming. Heaven help us if one of them suddenly has to figure out how to operate an automobile because their “auto pilot” has malfunctioned after relying on it for a few years!

  • avatar

    I’d have to say I’m still skeptical. There is technology currently available to regulate vehicle speed. Equip the road with sensors and each vehicle has a GPS unit and software which only allows the vehicle to go the posted speed limit and no more. Is it being used in our cars now? No. Why? Because Americans won’t have it and it reduces state revenue. Why are speed cameras all the rage in Europe and starting to creep into the U.S.? Because they provide revenue not because they improve safety. What do automated highways and cars do, they reduce revenue and take away personal freedom. Also how do you propose to stop me from using the highway? Just like there are hacks to an ECU there will be ways around anything the government or car industry puts out.

    It’s clear that not having guns of any kind in the U.S. would significantly reduce the amount of gun fatalities in the U.S. I’m not seeing gun legislation removing them or automated guns only working when there is a designated intruder in your home are you?

    You will see greater use of light rail, magnetic rail, monorail or something else before automated cars are in abundance. You might see something like this in a large city but then no one likes to drive in a city anyway.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Question: How would such a system deal with things on the road other than cars? Pedestrians, animals, debris, etc. I certainly wouldn’t want to be napping as my car cruised down the automated freeway and smacked into a deer at 75 mph.

    So it seems to me that this could only work if you could completely isolate the roadway from anything other than cars, either elevate or sink them (kind of like the high-speed trains in Europe and Japan.) While that would be fine for the major freeways, it wouldn’t be applicable to rural back roads which have to be able to access the surrounding countryside. And in the city you’d have to take into account the actions of pedestrians. What happens to the algorithms and careful calculations when the car traveling through the synchronized lights has to slam on its brakes to avoid some idiot stepping out in front of it?

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    There won’t be any idiots – they’ll be obsolete.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Infamous Doctor X, “better driver training and testing” is, I think, a far more remote possibility than are automated cars.

    And for everybody bringing up niggling “it’ll never work” problems, you remind me of the guy who told the Wright Brothers there would never be jets because the hot exhaust would ignite the airplane’s fabric…

  • avatar

    >>Finally, you have the problem of getting people to actually use the thing. Since you’re going to have to be able to switch the autopilot off for certain situations you’ll have people driving down the freeways with their autopilots off because they would rather be “in control”. Much the same reason why you can often see cars that you know are equipped with cruise control travelling at erratic speeds. Yup, they’re in control all right.

    I almost never use my cruise control, simply because I enjoy driving too much, and get bored if I’m sitting behind the wheel just steering. (I’ve taught myself to hold my speed constant without CC’s benefit.)

    I agree with Stephan Wilkinson that we probably do face the end of driving within several decades, the reasons for which include the push for increasing safety and efficiency of movement, especially in a country that’s growing by the equivalent of four New Jerseys every decade and accelerating, and the desire to “make use” of the time spent in the car, especially by working. But in many ways, I think it’s a shame. Driving used to be a time when the office couldn’t intrude, until the cell phone. Driving has always been associated with freedom and wanderlust, and a lot of thinking can be done while driving. Getting from here to there won’t be the same in your automated transportation pod.

    I also agree with whoever it was who warned that reliance on big, centralized technology can lead to huge problems when that technology malfunctions. Imagine some glitch putting the system controlling the automated cars out of commission.

    Having said all that, I also think people view the world from the perspective of the era they grow up in, and kids who are growing up in 10-20 years probably won’t miss driving.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Well, “big, centralized technology” currently gives us the occasional electricity blackout that shuts down several states at a time, and though it’s extremely inconvenient and difficult, the world doesn’t come to an end. I can see the vehicular-traffic system totally shutting down here and there for hours at a time during the occasional equivalent of a blackout, and we’ll deal with it.

  • avatar

    I have long believed that this is the future for automobiles. I imagine/hope it will come in the form of vehicles that can operate either manually or automatically, as I do love to drive. But I also long for the autopilot feature, as I love to drink.

    Also, sensors and computers can interact to allow automated vehicles to react to an animals, pedestrians, or manually operated vehicles that suddenly come into their path and most likely with much greater efficiency than humans are capable of. Vehicles competing in the DARPA challenge already can detect stationary objects in their path.

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    Mr. Wilkinson –

    I can’t really deny that it’s a remote possibility. And as I said, I don’t really disagree with any of your major points. I’m merely saying that an ever-growing reliance on technology is a dangerous path to tread. And while better training & testing is indeed a remote possibility, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a better option.

    As to the ‘niggling it’ll never work comments’, it’s not that it’ll never work. I’m sure it’ll work fine…until something breaks, a user panics, and the ripple effect causes a nascar-style pileup on I-95 during rush hour.

    Look, I’m with you to an extent. I’d like to take a nap while my car navigates the Pike/84/287/Parkway route when I go visit the wife’s folks, but I’m not interested in the tradeoff that requires under the currently envisioned set-up. If I really want a nap, I’ll take the Amtrak.

    Technology is great, but it sure didn’t help the Death Star when the Force came to town. We should not actively place our future in the hands of machines that are designed to fail.

  • avatar

    Quite honestly, I think this is dead on. If you are driving on public roads, you should not be allowed to speed, and your driving should be closely monitored to ensure you are driving in a safe manner. Swerve a little too often, and the car should first warn you, then if you continue, light up the four-ways, then begin to shut itself down, giving you enough power to pull over, but nothing else. Maybe a cool down period of twenty minutes or so, and the car will let you try again.
    Is it a loss of personal freedom?
    Absolutely. It takes away a freedom that has been iconic to America the last 50 years.
    Is it worth it?
    Absolutely. Tens of thousands of people die each year in automobile accidents, and injuries are likely in the hundreds of thousands.

    Americans have shown they are willing to give up certain personal freedoms in order to prevent terrorism, and terrorism is just a drop in the bucket compared to the automobile.

    This is not only worth it, it’s easy, and relatively inexpensive. While it would probably cost a couple hundred million to outfit every vehicle on the road with a GPS and deactivation routine, a staged roll-out over 10 years would distribute the costs to be pennies per person per year, and compared to the medical costs of all those injured, and the lives saved, it’s really a no-brainer.

    Unless, of course, you are an automobile manufacturer. They know this is coming, but it will effectively kill the automobile industry as it exists today, because it is so based on ideas of power and handling that simply are outside of the range of safe driving.

    Besides not killing people, a system that enforced safe driving would also open up the possibility of actually increasing speed limits in many places. As previously stated, your average car can already do 100+ MPH. The current issue with having a higher speed limit is that the risk from poor driving abilities increases with speed, and there are numerous vehicles on the road currently that simply can’t do higher speeds safely, but whose owners probably wouldn’t realize that. A speed enforcing GPS could use the vehicles VIN (along with potentially the drivers skill level) to determine a safe top speed, and adapt that to the conditions of whatever road the vehicle was on.

    Will it happen? Not as soon as it could, and there will be hundreds of thousands more that die because of that.

    P.S. This really isn’t an idea that only applies to America, but America probably has one of the best developed infrastructures from implementing it.

  • avatar

    There are NASCAR style pile-ups with the current technology. The hardest part for this technology will be overcoming peoples fears of handing off control to a machine. Many people are very nervous when flying, even though it is far safer than driving. Giving up control is a difficult thing and usually takes a new generation to make it work.

    I don’t know the exact mechanism of the automated cruise controls, but I assume it is some form of radar. What happens if there are hundreds or thousands of cars all pumping out the “radar”. Will it mean that I can no longer get a speeding ticket because the cops radar won’t be able to work?

    I think the movie “I Robot” made for a great case. The cars were fully automated if required or fully manual if required. Plus the Lexus looked very cool.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    I really think, like most technologies, this will not be as Orwellian as people think.

    Let’s say there is an automated interstate. Both types of cars will be allowed on. There is no way that the interstate will be ONLY for auto-piloted cars. Both will co-exist and be just fine together.

    And… as a drinker, I say bring this technology on.

  • avatar

    You can have my keys when you pry them from my cold dead rigor mortis grasp.

    My father never trusted cruise control, much the same way I don’t trust the lot of you (other drivers). I feel the single most direct threat to my safety on the road is other drivers. I’m more than capable of handling myself and my vehicle in any of the situations I encounter where I live. I haven’t mastered the seamless J-turn drive-bye shooting just yet, but I’m working on that too.

  • avatar


    Hey, if we’re going automated, why sweat the small stuff? Like a clear day with clear roads and newly-painted yellow lines.

    I need a car that recognizes we just had 10 inches of snow last night, cleans all that off with motorized brushing arms, warms the beast up, and with me aboard magically tramps through the snow in my driveway. Then sensors firing synaptically, decides where the road is in the white waste and takes me to work. Snow and ice? Why we have ESM and ABS, plus GPS, radar, lasers and one hell of a lot of over-confidence.

    Should kill everyone dead. Literally.

    If we could get a system like this to actually perform someday, 99% of the people in the world would already be well fed, never have a disease and wouldn’t have to work anyway.

    Pshaw. Mind games only.

  • avatar

    Mr. Wilkinson,

    An aircraft, as I understand it, is still a lot more expensive than a car. Part of this is due, no doubt, to economies of scale, but a great deal has to do with the avionics you are using as a basis for your argument. Perhaps the electronics required for your Ultimate Passenger Coccoon will decrease in cost to the point that all vehicles will be able to afford them; certainly that is the tendency in history.

    However, it is in history that I have to challenge your arguments. Horses were indeed widespread, but the last great transportation craze of the 19th century wasn’t horseback riding, it was bicycling. Bicycling gave individual mobility to the masses because it was 1) cheap to buy 2) sexy and 3) required a lot less infrastructure such as barns, street sweepers, feed, etc. The automobile expanded this, especially once America started building decent roads. Now one did not even have to break a sweat to go anywhere, anytime.
    And, frankly, your story about the jet engines setting the fabric on fire sounds like a cute, b.s. story. As you no doubt know, metal skins started appearing on aircraft in the 1920s.

    I do not doubt the technology to do what you describe will eventually exist. I simply question 1) if it is all that great an idea 2) if people will want to pay the financial and cultural costs and 3) what will keep everyone from suing everyone in sight when things go wrong?

    We have plenty of decayed infrastructure in this country which needs fixing, bridges and highways especially. What you are proposing is a technological pork-barrel whitewash of these deficiencies. Your heart is in the right place, I’m sure, but as the man said, “include me out.”

    I think your heart is in the right place too. I think your arguments don’t go far enough, though. Really, we will have technology available that will enable us to virtually be anywhere, to experience touch, taste and smell, too, eventually. To be really safe, we should be shut in little pods that will give us the right nutrients, make sure we get enough sleep, and are never exposed to disease, accidents or anything bad for us. We should never leave these little pods, living in our Second Life world, doing everything virtually, living as long as possible, because, well, that is what’s best for us.
    What is life without RISK, dammit? Is the human race supposed to be a bunch of hothouse flowers because of possible danger?
    Damn all nannies, everywhere, and especially all nanny governments.

    Dr. JP, your point about 3D did occur to me, as well. Thank you for mentioning it.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Uh oh… Neo here, just found out I’m “the one” and I’m bustin’ out…

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Like Charlton Heston said…..

    “when you can pry it from my cold, dead hands”.

    And also,

    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!

  • avatar

    Right On and well said NeonCat93…

    Stephan, your point with the horses, well, it misses the point. The horse went where the rider wanted it to go, not along some scented trail at a “safe” distance from the horses rearend in front of it. The rider was in control. While I agree it would be nice at times to put my big ol’ gas guzzlin pickup on autopilot, I would NEVER tolerate a totally “auto only” car.

    If you want to ride a train, go ahead. For those of us that like to be in control of our vehicles, personal decisions, and lives… you can keep your socialistic utopian dream of cattle meandering down the freeways nose to tail.

    The funniest post on here is Lesley Wimbush’s “There won’t be any idiots – they’ll be obsolete.” Sorry Lesley, take a look at the facts… the idiots are INCREASING as a percentage of the population. In fact, they may already be in the majority…

  • avatar

    What about motorcycles???

    How will they fall into the future when the elephant tail holding cars come to save us from ourselves.

    BMW LMP car “protect me from what I want” iirc. Jenny Holtz… How true.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    LOL, have any of you ever ridden a horse?
    They definitely have a mind of their own.

  • avatar

    Ironically, qfrog hits the nail on the head. He’s a great driver, but he stands as likely a chance to be killed by a poor one as the rest of us.

    NeonCat93, I’ll be back…

  • avatar

    There was once a time when we were foolish enough to believe that technology would save us all time. With a paper office we were all going to have soooo much more time to do other things. 20 years of “high technology” has taught us that this is not true. Technology gives us different things to spend our time with, and in many cases we spend more of our time than we used to with due to the technological advances. When you had to hand write and xerox a memo, you didn’t bother unless what you had to say was damn important. Today we all have hundreds of emails to read every day.

    I suspect that technology in cars is going to prove to be a similarly false hope. We already see that more technology in the car gives you more distractions, not less. In a car traveling at highway speeds we know from rigorous study the extremely small reaction time we have. If an automated pilot malfunctions at highway speed and the driver is not already focused on the road, the car and the traffic around him he will not stand a chance at correcting the malfunction before an accident occurs. No technology, despite our best efforts, is anything less than error-prone. We must expect technology to fail and plan for that event. In the case of a car, that means paying attention to the road. Even if your car is being operated automatically you are not going to be able to focus your attention elsewhere, or you will suffer the consequences at some point.

    In the state of Tennessee — my current residence — there is not even a safety inspection required to register a vehicle, only an emissions test for cars newer than 25 years old. If a police officer happens to pull you over for a safety infraction, he can cite you for it, and you can pay the ticket and keep driving if you wish. There are many other states in this big area between NY and LA with similarly lax requirements. If we cannot even get the brake lights and turn signals right, who is going to inspect these extremely complicated automated vehicle control systems? Your local mechanic? Ha. He’s not a computer expert, he’s a mechanic.

    Personal responsibility is a far better solution to potentially dangerous technology.

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson

    This may be a case of myopia, but I just don’t see this happening. For all the infrastructure requirements, I think countries like the US would be better served by investment in mass transit. I really think energy costs will force us away from personal transport to a large degree unless there are significant advances in electric cars or hydrogen fuel cars.

    As for technology, I think there are still serious problems with human interfaces which only get worse with increasing complexity. My biggest complaint about most electronic devices is that they do so many different things that doing the most basic tasks become difficult. Cell phones come to mind immediately.

    Some of the biggest complaints by reviews in the past few years have been of systems like Audi’s MMI or BMW’s I-drive. They are getting better, but still have a ways to go.

    Personally, I want technology that knows its place: when to help and when to get out of my way. A good example of tech that knows its place are the advanced cruise control systems. If I’m using cruise control, I’m not interested in manually keeping my distance from the car in front of me. I want the car to maintain the proper distance.

    But at other times, I want to drive and I want to drive the way I want to drive. And I don’t want a computer to tell me how to drive. That’s the job my wife has taken upon herself to perform and I can’t imagine a computer be any less irritating than she is unless there is a button to turn the damn thing off!

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Cavendel, re. the “radar” signals, which will actually probably be GPS signals, police radar will be irrelevant: you won’t be able to speed, since the system won’t permit you to. Of course, you’ll be able to cruise at 100, perhaps, on the major cross-country highways, since it’ll be so much safer.

    NeonCat93, it was a joke. I’m aware that nobody told the Wright Brothers about jet engines, since they didn’t appear until the very late 1930s–substantially later than metal aircreaft skins. Sheesh.

    Wolven, in 800 words I didn’t quite have enough space to do an essay on the automatic automobile as well as Equus. My point was simply that horses were once a big deal and no longer are, and that “horse enthusiasts” actually got over it.

    The rest of you who think I’m suggesting this as a Utopian great idea simply don’t get it. It’s not _my_ idea, it’s the idea of the several major European, Japanese and even U. S. companies that are already actively working on it. Stop shooting at the messenger.

  • avatar

    Back for the NeonCat.

    The point isn’t that human beings shouldn’t be allowed to take risks. The point is that we should minimize the ways in which they are allowed to put other people’s lives on the line in the process of taking those risks. If some guy wants to buy up an old parking lot and turn it into a demolition derby, folks should be welcome to bring their cars, and kill themselves for all I care.

    However, when you are on the highway, the same highway that me and family are driving on, I damn well expect you not to take risks, and to drive in a safe and legal manner.

    The bottom line is that on any public road, you lose your right to take many of those risks. Go off road, or to the track, or hell, rent a go-cart. I would probably do all three. If someone get their jollies from breaking the law and endangering other people’s lives, I don’t think that constitutes a persuasive argument against this concept.

    As for the practicality, this technology is practical (they could probably implement most of it using just the technology already in your cell-phone), it’s inexpensive, and it would be very easy to phase in. But as I mentioned, it would more or less kill the existing auto industry, so it’s not likely to happen any time soon.

  • avatar

    Stephan, just because a company is working on an idea does not mean that it will become a national policy.

    passive, you missed neoncats point about risk. He is not advocating driving in a risky manner (read his statement again before flying off on a tangent), but simply stating that risk is a part of life. You risk your life crossing the street, you risk you life flying, you risk your life working on your car, etc. He is ranting against people/companies/etc. who would gladly submit to the government curtailing our personal freedoms all in the pursuit of minimizing risk.

  • avatar

    Absolutely super idea.
    I’m going to build a six bay extension on my garage right now and start hiring another batch of electronic trouble shooters.
    I’m going to make a fortune, because one thing that WON’T change is Murphys law and “if anything can go wrong it will.”
    Or Cohens’ corollary: “Murphy was an optimist.”

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson


    “Shooting the messenger” is a venerable tradition which has been practiced for centuries.

  • avatar

    Cars will never be fully automated, just as trains, subways, airplanes, and nuclear power plants will never be fully automated.

    Not only the controls and the function of the car has to be extremely robust, it needs to be layered with redundancy for safety of everyone else. The road condition has to be well maintained and communication (vision, sonar/radar, wireless communication with other cars, etc) needs to be designed with failure in mind. It is easy to blame the driver and road condition if a deer jump onto the road, but it is hard not to blame the car if it doesn’t protect its occupants.’

    I vision automated cars to perform in hostile environment or extremely open, desinated roads first. A triple trailer UPS truck crossing UTAH or a HumVee crossing Iraqi battle field would be a good start, armored cash transit would be next.

    We do not have the technologies yet. Sorry to disappoint you Stephan, do you khow difficult and expensive it cost to get good sensor and pattern recognition. It is easy to perform in a controlled environment with the same light, heat, humidity, and vibration every single time, but if you put the sensors in a different situation, it is not going to be easy or cheap. On one hand you cannot rely on anything other than vision because foreign objects (a mattress on the road, a deer, etc) happens, but on the other hand vision is a poor feedback for machines, and we do not have something fast enough to recognize hazard every single time yet.

    It will happen one day, but the driving condition and laws have to change first. Like how punch card gradually evolved to magnetic tapes and optical disks.

  • avatar

    This has been one of the most interesting discussions we’ve had. And yes, I think we’ll end up in (at least largely) automated transportation pods, and despite the strong arguments in favor, I’d much rather see society force people to learn how to really drive well, than to protect them from themselves, and take from us the control of these marvelous machines that most of us love. Automated cars will be one more influence in the evolution of local Homo sapiens to Homo domesticus americanus.

  • avatar

    Stephan, it is a good thing we have real cars in the garage, something about 3 pedals for two feet, no power steering, and putting the key in with your left hand………

  • avatar

    PandaBear: in the Vancouver, BC area we have an elevated transit system that is completely automated. Of course, it runs on a dedicated, elevated (or tunneled) guideway with no “random” traffic to worry about. The complexities multiply exponentially when you add all the known and unknown factors in.

    I would expect that at some time, new highway construction will include a provision for intelligent, automated control (speed limit transmitters, etc.). Cars will be able to detect the presence of such infrastructure and ask if you’d like to switch to auto.

    Maybe in 100 years the technology will be widespread.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    1981.911.SC, I track a 1983 911SC, highly modified in the RS direction, so you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.

    PandaBear, learn to never say “never.” It will help you think outside the tiny box of your own limited personal experience. In fact you said it all: “Like how punch cards evolved…” How long did that take? Like 30 minutes in the grand scheme of things?

    David Holzman, exactly how do you propose that we “force people” to learn to drive well? When was the last time Americans were “forced” to do something they particularly didn’t want to do and didn’t see any reason to do? (Remember seatbelt interlocks?) No, don’t tell me “airline security.” Most people see at least a peripheral personal-safety benefit to that, at the cost of minimal and very occasional personal inconvenience. Compare that to someone who you’re going to order to give up his or her car keys because they can’t drive well enough.

  • avatar

    There will be fully automated cars and they are not too far away.

    I mean today there are cars that warn you as soon as you leave your lane and there is something like the so called Distronic the new Mercedes S-Class has. Combine those two features and you’re almost there already.

    With “drive by wire” technology it is easily possible to let a computer do the steering as well.

    The only thing that’s needed is some way for the car to see speed limits and traffic lights. I’ve seen a promo-video by Mercedes. It was from the 80’s and they already had a fully automated car that could even read traffic signs. However, I guess it would be too expensive to implement a camera and the means for the car to be albe to “read” the signs. But how about a little RFID chip on every traffic sign? That would be a cheap and easy way to let the car know what to do.

    You see, the only thing in the way of the fully automated car is lawyers. But if they can make a Boeing 747 secure, it should only be a matter of time to make sure that drive-by-wire and all that is safe.

  • avatar

    Stephan, if I am ‘forced’ to take a driver’s test, both written and practical, then there is nothing saying that the test can not be harder. Failing the test would then precipitate the need for the applicant to take a drivers education course. Problem solved.

    Start training them while young. Most adults don’t mind passing on onerous requirements, as long as it is not required of them. The first part above is an aggressive solution to address the problem now. The second part would be a rigorous drivers education course that is MANDATORY for all teenagers (or ANYONE who is pursuing their license for the first time) prior to taking the exam.

    Won’t work you say? Well, it works when you have to smog/inspect your vehicle. If the vehicle fails the the inspection/smog test, you have to repair your vehicle and get it tested again.

    You could have the drivers education course suffice for the practical part of the exam. I did this in California when pursuing my motorcycle license. The state will waive the driving portion of the test if you pass a CHP-approved motorcycle safety training course. Best $250 I spent.

    This is really no different.

  • avatar

    Stephan Wilkinson, you are absolutely right, never say never. It is almost impossible to tell what kind of breakthough will come tomorrow, but I don’t personally believe we have automation nail down with the current generation of platform.

    It is easy to drive a car, like the way autopilot of airplane and ship is done, if you do not have to worry about safety and the spontaneous failure that will guarantee to happen when put into millions of cars and miles of road conditions.

    We human will eventually figure it out, but is it a right solution to our problem? or should we do automated mass transit? is there a better approach? like dedicated auto-pilot highway (the way highway revolutionize our transportation) that eliminate any external factors?

    It is almost impossible to say what is the right solution until probably another generation of technologies shows up. I am putting my bet on GPS automated farm equipment before GPS automated cars.

  • avatar

    I don’t think that GPS technology will be up to the challenge. An error factor of 3 metres horizontal is OK for aircraft, but that’s the other side of the road and into oncoming traffic in the real world.

    Accuracy of the GPS plot would have to improve to +- 300mm or less, which is 10x better than we have now.

    Sure, we are talking the future, but geostationary satellites are not really stationary – they are revolving around the earth at what is supposed to be an identical velocity as the earth’s surface. The earth’s rotational velocity increases and decreases by small and unpredictable amounts, and the satellite itself may be from time to time either faster or slower than the corresponding surface point on the earth, and will ultimately slow down through infinitesmal dust collisions etc.

    GPS is fine for ships, aircraft and navigation systems, but the greater precision required for accurate placement of motor vehicles will be unachievable.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Uh, GPS automated farm equipment has been in the fields of Kansas and Iowa for years and years. Check out the latest John Deere “tractors” and you’ll find quarter-million-dollar machines that till, farrow, hoe and seed fields under satellite guidance while the operator sits in an a/c cab keying numbers into a laptop. There’s no other way to accurately deal with crop rows two miles long. Lot different than the Farmall Cub I drove in the early ’50s.

    Although maybe you live in a city and are kidding, I dunno…

  • avatar

    David Holzman, exactly how do you propose that we “force people” to learn to drive well? When was the last time Americans were “forced” to do something they particularly didn’t want to do and didn’t see any reason to do? (Remember seatbelt interlocks?) No, don’t tell me “airline security.” Most people see at least a peripheral personal-safety benefit to that, at the cost of minimal and very occasional personal inconvenience. Compare that to someone who you’re going to order to give up his or her car keys because they can’t drive well enough.

    Stephan, you’re forcing me to be a bit more creative. Here are some ideas.
    1. Monetary incentives. Cheaper insurance rates for people who take advanced driving courses.
    2. Encourage kids to ride the dodge-ems. I did a lot of that before I could drive legally. I would try to avoid crashes instead of trying to get into crashes. Kids could be scored a point for each crash, the one with the least points wins.
    3. driving video games.
    I’m sure I could think of more, but I want to read the rest of the new comments before I have to go to bed.

  • avatar

    Pandabear writes:
    >>We human will eventually figure it out, but is it a right solution to our problem? or should we do automated mass transit? is there a better approach? like dedicated auto-pilot highway (the way highway revolutionize our transportation) that eliminate any external factors?

    These questions remain to be answered. But as long as sprawl rules in the US, mass transit is going to be impractical for most places. Example: I used to live in Wash DC a 7 minute walk from a metro stop. To get to my doctor’s office downtown, I could take the metro. There was one change, and the downtown stop was pretty close to the doctor’s office. Door to door was 40 minutes. But riding my bicycle, or driving was closer to 20 minutes, even in rush hour.

    Mass transit becomes practical in cities like NYC where development is dense and parking is a pain in the rear.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    I am amused by people who say, “Jeez, we’d need top improve the accuracy of GPS by a factor of TEN!”

    In 50 years, we’ve improved the accuracy of paper “maps”by what, a million?

    Climb out of the box. Here, let me give you a hand…

  • avatar

    Big difference, Stephan, between paper maps and geosynchronious earth orbiting satellites.

    I am not saying it is impossible, but greater accuracy will solely be determined by absolute numbers of satellites, and an exponential increase in computing power to correlate data from these numerous satellites.

    This will cost a significant amount of money – and it begs the question “Why?”, when the system works adequately for most purposes right now. Emphasis on right now.

    You made the point that:

    Thanks to burgeoning wireless technology, everything to make the automated car work is already on shelves or in stationary orbit.

    My point was simply that there is not sufficient accuracy in GPS technology, right now, to “make the automated car work”.

    Other than that, I totally agree with your premise that this will be the future of motoring, sooner rather than later.

  • avatar

    BTW, Stephan, I do not believe that the “accuracy” of paper maps has improved in the last 50 years to any noticeable extent at all, let alone a “million” times.

    A map from 50 years ago will still be accurately scaleable to distance, on say a 1:100,000 scale, and today’s version of the map will measure almost precisely the same distance.

    This does not change the fact that GPS is not suitable for controlling the physical location of a car, either today or in the next 20 years at my estimate.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    I never said “right now.” I simply said that all of the basic technology exists and is ready to be exploited by people who know what they’re doing. As opposed to people who say, “Impossible, it’ll ever work, a dog will run into the road…”

    Of course there’s a big difference between paper maps and GPS. There’s also a big difference between Columbus’s Santa Maria and a space shuttle, but they’re only what, half a millenium apart. A nanosecond of history.

    If we’d all stop arguing that “the paperclip will never fit” and start thinking that maybe there’s something beyond a paperclip, we might get beyond why we won’t all be driving Camaros and Challengers in 20 years.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Jesus, it’s sometimes hard to communicate. I’m not talking about he accuracy of paper maps, I’m talking about the mega-quantum leaqp from paper maps to electronic positioning.

  • avatar

    Stephan, it’s easy to communicate.

    All you have to do is review what you write. I have directly quoted from your article:

    “Thanks to burgeoning wireless technology, everything to make the automated car work is already on shelves or in stationary orbit.”

    You went on to say:

    “We have all the tools we need to make a “driverless car”:”

    I merely pointed out that the technology in existence today was incapable of achieving what you asserted it could.

    Your reply was “I never said “right now.” Yeah, whatever.

    You also said:

    “In 50 years, we’ve improved the accuracy of paper “maps”by what, a million?”.

    I (rather politely, I thought) replied that the accuracy of a 50 year old map was not significantly different to a map today.

    Your reply was: “Jesus, it’s sometimes hard to communicate. I’m not talking about he accuracy of paper maps…”. Coulda fooled me.

    In fact, as Claude Dickson so drolly put it: ““Shooting the messenger” is a venerable tradition which has been practiced for centuries.”

    Very well said, Sir!

  • avatar

    For the sake of safety, whether it is due to intentional interference (terrorist attack, prank, etc) or system mailfunction (solar storm, software bugs, power outage, etc), a massive communication based traffic guidance is not good enough.

    A power outage occur, say, once every 10 years in a major city, and you get a 100k+ man hour worth of productivity lost. Do that on a auto-drive system that is GPS or communication dependent and you will see 1000+ fatality.

    All decision must be made from locally acquired data (on car sensor or on car camera, etc) instead of following a global decision (the local traffic arbitor tell me to go 65mph following 20 inches from the car in front of me). In case any one car fail the rest of the traffic must be able to self recover and get around it. It is how a large scale system, any large scale system, needs to be capable of, in order to be safe in the worst case scenario.

    What will our car need to protect itself when the autodrive computer all of a sudden went out? That is the question we should answer before we dream about an autodrive car.

    Am I being too nervious? If you do not follow this kind of “dooms day” scenario when you design a system, Mr. Murphy will come bite your ass when you least expected.

    Oh, yes, I know that GPS tractor has been around for a decade plus, thats why I said I trust it more.

  • avatar

    Automation for what reason?

    To deal with driver incompetence? I suppose it makes sense, but then why not use busses and trains, as somebody has already mentioned. I think it’s far too easy to get a driver’s license in the US, and I think that less than half of those who currently drive would actually pass a test that honestly assessed them on their competence and ability, and not just on whether or not they had the money.

    To gain efficiencies in transportation? Again, trains and other mass-transit would be a better answer here… Much more efficient, and we would need fewer places to store our cars!

    Just drive down any neighborhood street and see how big our modern garages and parking structures are compared to the rest of the house or neighborhood. It’s a caricature, like a giant clown’s nose!

    The next time you fly over any city or small town, take a good look at all of the real estate that has to be reserved just to store and park our cars. Parking lots, driveways, and garages often take up more earth than the buildings that they serve!

    Mass transit would be a great solution, but there are a couple of “small” problems with mass transit.

    They don’t “go” where we need them to go, and they are targets for crime and terrorism. We will need to rethink them (“all busses go downtown” is inexcusable!) figure out how to make public transportation safe to ride at any hour of the day or night, and we need to deal with that small segment of the population who would try to blow up trains.

    Getting people to actually USE mass transit is another matter. But that is a question for another day.

  • avatar

    ZoomZoom writes:
    >>To gain efficiencies in transportation? Again, trains and other mass-transit would be a better answer here… Much more efficient, and we would need fewer places to store our cars!

    You make a bunch of very good points here and elsewhere in your post. But while mass transit is very efficient as far as energy and land use go, in terms of getting people where they want to go, it won’t be efficient until the US is a bunch of Manhattans separated by forests and farms, or until it is much more like Europe (same thing). That isn’t going to happen until we pass national zoning laws that are draconian by the standards of at least half the voters, and probably more, and 50-100 years elapse, enough time for the new zoning laws to change the layout of America.

    When I go out in my car, for whatever purpose, both short and long haul, I usually make at least two stops, often several. Regarding long-haul, when I visit NYC, I visit people in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and N. NJ. I’d hate to have to navigate public transit for all that. Having to depend on mass transit for local stuff would force me to spend at least twice as much time getting from place to place, and I’d probably have to give up going to some places.

    I think one of the last things Americans are going to give up is their time. Where mass transit can save time, I have been known to use it (for example, within Manhattan, once I get there, because it is so hard to park a car over much of the island). But for going into Boston from the suburbs, most of the time it’s much quicker in the car.

  • avatar

    “I do love to drive. But I also long for the autopilot feature, as I love to drink.”

    Ok, that’s hilarious.

    Anyway, great article!

    Being a sci-fi nut, this is a topic I’ve pondered on many occasions. I think what you say is true. Driverless cars are inevitable. There are just too many people out there that wouldn’t drive if given the choice. Take my girlfriend, for example, she detests driving – anywhere. Of course, us enthusiasts would have our own stable and tracks where we could take our obsolete ‘beasts’ for recreation.

  • avatar


    Actually, GPS accuracy is no longer quite so bad, and has been improving very steadily. There are apparently areas that have system with accuracy in the mms.
    However, besides that, for my idea to work, it doesn’t require GPS to do anything except monitor speed, for which the current system is entirely sufficient. It might be advantageous if GPS could also monitor car behaviour, but that is orders of magnitude more difficult, so an in-car system should suffice.


    It’s not that NeonCat advocated driving in a risky manner, it’s that he implied that my proposal was aimed at preventing people from taking risks, which was true, but I thought it needed to be illustrated that there is a large difference between what I suggested to diminish risk and what he compared it with.
    I thought it important to describe in more detail what the differences are, and real-world examples such as those I used seemed appropriate.

    While I agree with the idea that teaching people how to drive well, or improving mass transit, are probably more holistic solutions, they seem highly unlikely. Improving mass transit to the degree required would need a significant policy shift, and while I hope it happens, the history says it’s not too likely, and even if it did, there would still be huge numbers of people who wouldn’t use it, and the resultant accidents to deal with.
    In terms of improving overall driving skills, I am totally behind this idea as well. Unfortunately, to be done properly means much stricter testing, much more frequent testing, and much better training availability. I would love for you to have to pass a test every 5 years, and for it to be very strict. Assuming we could actually pull-off the infrastructure for this, it would still be dead in the water politically. What politician is going to say “vote for me, and a third of you will get your licenses rejected”? Couple that with the damage to the automobile industry (fewer drivers, fewer cars), and it’s another great idea that would require a hell of a fight to implement.

    This is not to say that these won’t come about, but it makes me rather depressed the number of people who will die in the meantime because of the obstacles they face.

  • avatar

    Pilots go through hundreds of hours of training to sit and watch the controls. That’s so their skills don’t degrade. If you had a self-drive car that allowed you to sit back and ride for a few years, or even a few months, then you suddenly found yourself driving again, how would you feel? More importantly, how would you feel if you knew that the person driving next to you just did that? If you think drivers are bad now…just imagine. When the time comes however, these cars need to be fully self-driven, and at the current rate/cost of technology, I think that’s a long way off.

  • avatar


    I would never shoot the humble messenger… but the evangelist, well now that’s different… :)

  • avatar

    “They can send a man to the moon, but they can’t (insert your pet peeve here).” That’s becuase the fact is, in many ways going to the moon is an easier nut to crack than a lot of problems that sound simpler.

    I just don’t think this is a problem that’ll be solved soon. Maybe if you’re a Ray Kurzweiler fan you might think otherwise, but I don’t believe it. Human brains are enormously good at what they do well, in comparison to the best machines we have yet to make . . . and driving a car in our free-roaming world requires a lot of those things. It’ll be a long time coming until we have the computing ability to make this happen, I predict . . .

    Relatively sparse automated airliners flying in wide open or minutely controlled airspace, or trains running on dedicated tracks are orders of magnitude simpler than a huge, HUGE number of individual vehicles running the roads. The margins for error are also much different . . . given our road system, a few inches of error can be catastrophic, which is not the case in an airplane in flight.

    But it makes a difference in landing or taking off, right? And they’ve licked that, right? Well, yes . . . but to me that’s more akin to making an auto-park system that pulls your car into or out of your garage (which I believe is being done by a German mfg, correct?). It’s a very tightly controlled scenario with very specific goals. Take that tight control away (such as the case of a stray vehicle moving onto a runway against the orders of an air traffic controller), and you have a disaster.

    Given the explosive growth in some areas of technology over the past decade, it’s hard to believe that we are unable to do anything we think is a good idea . . . but regardless, there are some problems that will continue to defy easy solution. We’ve had on-the-shelf technology to make flying machines for quite a few decades . . . but as Red Foreman said, “Where’s my flying car? They promised me a flying car . . .” No personal jet packs, either . . . I think this falls into that category.

  • avatar

    OK, I’ll chime in with another variable: What about those of us who use motorcycles/scooters/other form of motorized two-wheel transport as our daily transportation, instead of a four-wheeled vehicle? Where are we going to fit in amongst all this wonderful computer-controlled traffic?

    For that matter, are we going to WANT to fit in? As you’ll probably assume from my signature line, riding that Harley with a patch on my back doesn’t exactly make me high on the list for those willing to be regulated for their own safety and comfort. And there’s a lot of younger guys on Speed Triples and other streetfighters who can make me look like the ultimate in social conformity.

    Deranged Few M/C

  • avatar

    Um, never mind self-driving cars, I’m a big cruise control fan, when I’m on the highway, I practically drive with my fingers… HOWEVER

    Here in the cities where many of these expensive cars are being purchased, I’d forgoe it all to have “low speed adaptice cruise control” so that my car can automatically “edge up” during my next trip on the belt parkway at 2mph for 3 hours trying to get over the bridge to jersey…. just use those cheap ultrasonic parking sensors, and limit it to 3 mph… even with an automatic, there are many days when I get out of the car feeling like I have a pulled groin muslce…..


  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    I still do not understand why many of you seem to thing this is an all or nothing proposition.

    In “the future” you will have mixed roads. You on your scooter, me drunk and napping while the computer takes me home.


  • avatar

    I agree with many of the responses on here that question the technological feasibility of such as system TODAY. Heck, look at how lousy DARPA has shown the best of the best automation to be (and this is along routes that contain FAR less complexity than an average commute). But that is not fun to discuss…

    Let’s talk about engagement. We want the system to need input from the driver so that the driver will have to be engaged in case there is a problem that occurs. As noted by others, our brains are really really good at spatial navigation–far better than computer are or will be in the near future. What we want to avoid is the extra 5 seconds in an emergency that would be necessary for a person to come to terms with where he is and what is going on. There really is no substitute for the human brain.
    What we want is to use technology to make the car transparent to the driver…to the point where a person consciously IS the car. His arms and legs are wheels and his emotions are socially communicated via indicator lights and sounds. Enhanced cognitive distribution from person to car is what I see as improving the transportation world. This is the opposite direction from the automation this article discusses.

    Unless, of course, you think we should go for complete automation without the possibility of input even under emergency situations. Have fun with that. We cannot do that well–even on a train track.

  • avatar

    >>Human brains are enormously good at what they do well, in comparison to the best machines we have yet to make . . . and driving a car in our free-roaming world requires a lot of those things. It’ll be a long time coming until we have the computing ability to make this happen, I predict . . .

    Computer technology is accelerating so quickly that I think we’re likely to get to this point in 2-3 decades.

    >>Given the explosive growth in some areas of technology over the past decade, it’s hard to believe that we are unable to do anything we think is a good idea . . . but regardless, there are some problems that will continue to defy easy solution. We’ve had on-the-shelf technology to make flying machines for quite a few decades . . . but as Red Foreman said, “Where’s my flying car? They promised me a flying car . . .” No personal jet packs, either . . . I think this falls into that category.

    If the roads can be chaotic, imagine how chaotic getting from place to place would be with flying cars, and imagine how deadly crashes would be, not only to those in the flying cars, but to those on the ground. Plus, even without the risk of death, I wouldn’t want people buzzing my house. Think of what flying cars would do to privacy.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Believe me, as a pilot, nobody but nonpilot Popular Mechanics editors and wacko inventors have ever taken “flying cars” seriously. They do not deserve to be part of this discussion.

  • avatar

    Not gonna happen.

    While the technology exists to make this happen – the technology also exists to order a pizza from your local pizzeria over the internet – will anyone really use it?

    And how would states and towns make up the TRAFFIC TICKET REVENUE they would surely be giving up with no idiots on the road?

    How will insurance companies continue to jack up our rates when all the risk factors are eliminated?

    And I can imagine in today’s world of terror threats, a whole bunch of automated, driverless, car bombs making their way around the city.

    Let’s not forget that the initial surge of internet use revolved around easy access to porn online.

    If you can somehow link porn to automated cars…

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