Volkswagen's Driverless Creation is Everything That Scares People About Autonomous Cars
Unable to get excited about the vehicle pictured above? Maybe that’s because this Volkswagen concept embodies everything people who don’t want to read about self-driving cars hate.
See, it has a name — Sedric. Which is apparently a combination of three words — “self,” “driving,” and, you guessed it, “car.” It’s just so appallingly cute. Which, like the existential threat to personal freedom that surrounds the technology, is another thing that turns off gearheads when vehicles resembling shapeless computer mouses or refrigerators crop up.
While VW’s concept, which is more of a pod than a car, is meant to herald the company’s autonomous future and serve as the patriarch of the company’s anticipated self-driving offerings, it’s really just a testbed for VW engineers to tinker with. Designed for Level 5 (or “full”) autonomy, Sedric is just the beginning, VW claims. To many, that might sound like a threat.
Sedric is the pioneer, the ideas platform for autonomous driving in the Volkswagen Group. And it is the “Father” of numerous concepts for a new form of individual mobility. Soon Sedric will also get “children” and “grandchildren” with the Group’s various brands. They will be created in typical designs for the brands and will feature tailor-made and customer-specific characteristics for equipment.
Bland. Featureless. Personalized but not romantic or stirring in any sense of the word. The act of being driven, rather than driving one’s self. A wheeled computer, which would abide by every dictate of the ruling authorities, built with the sole purpose of carting your sorry butt around to places you’re obligated to visit. No off-roading abilities.
All of these characteristics likely jibe with the features certain car enthusiasts despise about autonomous vehicles. To them, it’s an automotive version of the creamless coffee flavored with artificial sweetener that appears in Orwell’s 1984. It does the trick — it gets you around, in this case — but it does so without passion, without involvement, without enjoyment. To this crowd, each autonomous concept and Level 2 driver’s aid brings us a step closer to a future foretold in the 1981 Rush song Red Barchetta. A future where certain classes of vehicles — perhaps all human-driven vehicles — are outlawed out of concern for public safety.
Thunderbird? Firebird? No. Sedric.
Of course, I can sympathize. I harbor the same feelings and concerns. As I’ve always told friends, I’m a modern man, not a postmodern one. (Now let’s get back to that Eisenhower documentary…)
It’s funny that a vehicle like VW’s Sedric is sometimes met with visions of a future where personal mobility is restricted, as the vehicle intends to do just the opposite. The service that would be performed by this vehicle, at least in the way VW describes it, already exists. It’s simply offered in a more recognized and accepted form.
The idea of a simple form of individual mobility for everyone is linked to a universally usable vehicle and to an intuitive and easily understood control concept. The Button is the link between the user and Sedric. It is the key to a completely new mobility experience. This is because a single touch of the button guarantees mobility for everyone, at any time, and at any location. The control element is made of a button to press and a ring which indicates Sedric’s arrival time with colored signals and vibration signal that guides a person with impaired vision to the car.
Buses! Subways! Taxis! Those already exist. But people who don’t own a car still desire a better way of getting around than what’s currently on offer. Who can blame them? Who enjoys awkward conversations about the outside temperature or traffic with their cabbies? No one. Who likes standing butt-to-gut in a crowded subway car or lurching bus, holding on to a pole or strap teeming with the contents of several dozen petri dishes, trying not to breathe?
Admit it, you’d rather have Sedric take you home from the bar. As foreign as it may be to some, the vision of mobility offered by VW is akin to a subway or taxi that stops at your door, minus the possibility of awkward moments spent with strangers. It also eliminates any chance that an angry insurance company will come after your wallet. For this purpose, what’s not to like, at least as far as your inner libertarian is concerned?
Still, the fear remains that while autonomous vehicles will certainly plug gaps in the mobility realm, the realm itself could eventually boot humans from behind the wheel. Even Volkswagen hints that a Sedric-like vehicle could one day find a home in your driveway, never mind the concept’s ride-hailing element.
That means no getting up from the couch to take a long drive out of town at midnight, no destination in mind, just feeling the wind in your hair has your feet and hands pilot the vehicle past fields and houses that recede silently in the night. That would be a terrible thing to lose. However, the act of providing new methods of getting around and the act of restricting methods of mobility are two separate things, initiated by two very different branches of society.
It’s too bad we can’t separate the former from fear of the latter.
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