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.