TTAC reader and former auto journalist Michael Banovsky writes about the inexorable move towards autonomous cars
Autonomous cars are already here.
It doesn’t matter if you’re testing an actual Google Car or cruising the Keys in a Pagoda-roof 230 SL, CUVing the kids to Hot Yoga or signing “11” on a deserted road. Autonomous cars are here, the debate is done, so enjoy driving while you still can.
Let’s start with a story.
I was driving to work and glanced in my rearview and noticed a lady talking on a cell phone. Is that a chil…yes, that’s a child-in-child-seat, too.
We were at a moderate speed, we stopped, we got going again…and she didn’t hit me. I even watched, two minutes later, as she put the phone down and resumed the school run.
What was I supposed to do, publicly shame her? Call the cops, telling them someone was making a call—a possibly important one—and they should speed over, tout de suite?
This happens all the time, of course, all over the world. Are we to vilify everyone who safely makes a call or text while behind the wheel? Drives drunk? Drives high? Drinks coffee without spilling it? Changes the radio station without crashing?
I don’t think so. That would be—caution, nasty word – surveillance, and we’re probably going to give up driving before it’s monitored or taken away, anyway.
Here’s why: Any anti-social and anti-public safety behaviours* are drivers showing they’ve chosen something else over operating a vehicle. Taking a call while driving is proof, proven thousands of times a second, that we feel talking on a phone is as important to us as driving.
For a driverless future to happen, two things need to happen. First, non-compliance with road laws and rising costs will make driving much more expensive—to say nothing of fuel prices. Second, technology will make it possible.
Now tell me either is unlikely.
The key to adopting driverless cars without outcry is to make drivers feel like they have a choice. The lady I saw talking on her phone? If you could have given her a big green “Autonomous” button, I bet she’d have pushed it before taking that call.
Fines for not complying will keep increasing, making a driverless car system—either built-in or aftermarket— seem cheap in comparison. The aftermarket devices will become so small as to be unnoticeable. What will stop companies from offering ad-supported ones? “Saving $20 on groceries this week will only take 9 minutes, Ms. Greer. Would you like me to set a route?”
Autonomous vehicles could allow us to:
- – Safely accept phone calls
- – Safely interact with passengers
- – Safely navigate through stressful or dangerous driving conditions
- – Appoint an adult bus monitor instead of driver, making the now-autonomous school bus safer
- – Drive your drunk ass home
- – Travel more quickly on highways (what government would argue against higher speeds if they were sure crashing wasn’t possible. Yes, your car will drive faster than you.)
- – Substantially reduce insurance premiums
- – Substantially improve pedestrian and cyclist safety
- – Substantially improve fleet-wide fuel economy
- – Revolutionize semi-public transit, like airport shuttles and taxis
- – Send our vehicles for service while we’re at work
- – Offer incentives to shop in certain stores, or drive in certain places
- …and many, many other things.
Roads were humanity’s last great analog system, until of course we started mapping things digitally. GPS and Google Streetview for our system of roads. Radar, specialized cameras, sensors for vehicles themselves. The vehicles are irrelevant—at the point machines move for themselves, does it matter if it’s a cement truck or smart fortwo? Does it matter if the data required to move a machine comes from a satellite or the car in front?
Once machines can read the road surface, signs, and conditions accurately (and reliably), these systems will flourish, and the vast majority of motorists will benefit.
Don’t like it? Don’t speed. Don’t use your cell phone. Drive more smoothly. Don’t crash. And tell millions of others the same. Then keep it up for the foreseeable future.
A future where driver-less cars outnumber driver-with cars isn’t crazy. It’s certainty, certainly if drivers keep breaking the rules. Statistics proving how bad we are at driving will allow the technology a foothold, and a few machine generations will work out most problems.
Advertising will take care of the rest.
What, did you think for a moment that companies would allow one of our last, great freedoms—driving—to remain free from monetization forever? “Driving” will become “moving people around.”
If you’re in doubt, take a few minutes and read US Patent #8630897. Search for “Autonomous.”
*As defined by our road laws—if you don’t like them, change them! (Ha.)