Stephan Wilkinson
by Stephan Wilkinson

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.

Stephan Wilkinson
Stephan Wilkinson

I'm the automotive editor of Conde Nast Traveler and a freelancer for a variety of other magazines as well. Go to and read more about me than you ever wanted to know if you do a search for either of my current books, "The Gold-Plated Porsche" and "Man and Machine." Been a pilot since 1967 (single- and multi-engine land, single-engine sea, glider, instrument, Cessna Citation 500 type rating all on a commercial license) and I use the gold-plated Porsche, a much-modified and -lightened '83 911SC, as a track car.

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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...

  • Jrhurren Legend
  • Ltcmgm78 Imagine the feeling of fulfillment he must have when he looks upon all the improvements to the Corvette over time!
  • ToolGuy "The car is the eye in my head and I have never spared money on it, no less, it is not new and is over 30 years old."• Translation please?(Theories: written by AI; written by an engineer lol)
  • Ltcmgm78 It depends on whether or not the union is a help or a hindrance to the manufacturer and workers. A union isn't needed if the manufacturer takes care of its workers.
  • Honda1 Unions were needed back in the early days, not needed know. There are plenty of rules and regulations and government agencies that keep companies in line. It's just a money grad and nothing more. Fain is a punk!