Stephan Wilkinson
by Stephan Wilkinson
diy rip

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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  • Stephan Wilkinson Stephan Wilkinson on Aug 25, 2006

    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.

  • Nino Nino on Aug 29, 2006

    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...

  • MaintenanceCosts Despite my hostile comments above I really can't wait to see a video of one of these at the strip. A production car running mid-eights is just bats. I just hope that at least one owner lets it happen, rather than offloading the car from the trailer straight into a helium-filled bag that goes into a dark secured warehouse until Barrett-Jackson 2056.
  • Schurkey Decades later, I'm still peeved that Honda failed to recall and repair the seat belts in my '80 Civic. Well-known issue with the retractors failing to retract.Honda cut a deal with the NHTSA at that time, to put a "lifetime warranty" on FUTURE seat belts, in return for not having to deal with the existing problems.Dirtbags all around. Customers screwed, corporation and Government moves on.
  • Bullnuke An acquaintance of mine 50+ years ago who was attending MIT (until General Hershey's folks sent him his "Greetings" letter) converted an Austin Mini from its staid 4 cylinder to an electric motored fuel cell vehicle. It was done as a project during his progression toward a Master Degree in Electrical Engineering. He told me it worked pretty well but wasn't something to use as a daily driver given the technology and availability of suitable components of the time. Fueling LH2 and LOX was somewhat problematic. Upon completion he removed his fuel cell and equipment and, for another project, reinstalled the 4 banger but reassembled it without mechanical fasteners using an experimental epoxy adhesive instead which, he said, worked much better and was a daily driver...for awhile. He went on to be an enlisted Reactor Operator on a submarine for a few years.
  • Ajla $100k is walking around money but this is almost certainly the last Dodge V8 vehicle and it's likely to be the most powerful factory-installed and warrantied pushrod engine ever. So there is some historical applicability to things even if you have an otherwise low opinion of the Challenger.And, like I said up thread, if you still hate it will be gone soon anyway.
  • Carlson Fan GM completely blew the marketing of the Volt. The commercials were terrible. You'd swear they told the advertising company to come up with an ad that would make sure no one went out and shopped a Volt after seeing it!...........LOL My buddy asked why I bought a car that only goes 40 miles on a charge? That pretty much sums up how confusing and uninformative the advertising was.