The Driverless Roundtable
In just the past few years, thanks to Moore's Law and the march of technology in general, self-driving vehicles have gone from pure fantasy...
They're not yet quite ready for prime time, but it's probable that consumer-grade versions will be on sale for use on the streets within a decade. Our children and grandchildren will grow up surrounded by cars which drive themselves, and will think of them as utterly mundane and normal.
For this edition of the Car Lust Roundtable, we the contributors will send our opinions on the impending driverless car revolution hurtling straight at you down the information superhighway--with no one at the controls. Hang on!
Driverless cars are a crossroads of un-American and incredibly American mindsets. Let me explain.
They are very un-American in that they represent a transition away from personal freedom and our steadfast individualism. You can grab the wheel and go wherever you want. Two lanes, the radio, and a tank full of gas for adventure, probably somewhere out West. The flip side of that is it is very American in that it strongly appeals to our side that allows us to multitask. Think of how much better a metro commute might be with all automated cars. You could work without concern on the ride in to work. Imagine showing up at the office with an empty email inbox every day and all your meetings scheduled and planned.
I believe it would also add to the urban sprawl we experience in the USA as well. If you don't have to give any thought to the drive in and can make that time useful, you can live further out. I wonder if an unexpected (unanticipated?) side effect of driverless cars would be a furthering of class segregation. If you can afford one of these cars, while live in an urban center? I also wonder about the transition in the real world where cars of both types might have to co-exist for decades and how that might look. And then what of the rest of the world? How long would it take for Peru to adopt it for instance? Is there enough economic incentive for the larger car manufacturers to put a lot of effort and resources behind this if the realistic roll out worldwide might be as long as 50 years? If they can make the driverless car in a way that it costs nearly as little as a traditional car, then I think they'll have a fighting chance. But without that, adaptation in the real world will be at a snail's pace I'm afraid. None of that is to dissuade anyone from working on them, because in specific applications they are without question a fantastic tool. Exploration and recovery in dangerous locations would be just a single example of places the technology could be used immediately. So there is indeed a place for them, the question is just (at least in my mind) on the broader adaptation side of the equation.
As for me? As long as they keep motorcycles operator controlled, I'll be fine with it all either way we go.
50 years was about right for the horse-to-car transition in this country (1890-1940 or thereabouts). Car manufacturers handled that just fine. From what I've read, there were also similar concerns expressed about picking horses over cars - with a horse, you just point it in the direction you want, you let it forage from time to time, and you're good to go. With a car, you actually had to fill it with fuel periodically, maintain attention on the drive at all times, and share the road with others. Horses are better about avoiding each other than cars are, after all.
Now it's the 21st century, so what do we do? We combine both the horse and the car. What's old is new again.
Personally, I see the transition starting incrementally and being primarily driven by the transportation and services industries. Commuters will be the last people to adopt the technology; hauling fleets like UPS, FedEx, and most semi-driven fleets, however, are already halfway there already. Instead of attaching a GPS device that carefully monitors speed, position and route of a series of put-upon drivers that feel like robots, we'll just replace them with the real thing. This will result in greater productivity - computers don't have to sleep - and, if the technology holds up, greater safety since computers don't get distracted (usually). As time passes, the cost of self-driving technology will drop as people treat it less as a business-driven capital expense and more as a personal luxury. By this point, society and regulation will both be comfortable enough with the concept to let the transition finalize, though it will probably be less of a "transition" and more of an "acknowledgment of fact" - right now, our cars can already stop us if we're too close to the person in front of us, slow us down if we're losing traction, and pump our brakes for us if we need to stop suddenly. It's only a matter of time before our cars become increasingly semi-autonomous, then ultimately self-driving.
Will we have less freedom with this technology? Ultimately, I don't think so. There are some privacy concerns, but that's true with the "black boxes" and electronic devices currently installed in our cars. Most people will just see that they can sit in a car, set a destination, and then it will get there, sort of like a private train that starts and finishes on their schedule. Granted, they won't be able to speed like a modern automobile, but it won't matter since we can stop holding steering wheels and start doing, well, just about anything else. Heck, rental cars will have much more utility - why buy a car when I can just rent one when I need it, then have it drive to the next customer while I'm at work? This could lead to substantially increased economic freedom and decreased resource usage.
I think autonomous vehicles on a freeway, especially during high traffic hours, is a good idea. But on back, twisty country roads? No.
First, I agree that lots of work can get done while commuting in a portable office. Letting the machines drive us is just like having Jeeves sitting up front while we're in the back, feet propped up, drinking the morning coffee, and finishing that report. Keeping the vehicles safe distances apart from each other seems like a good idea as well.
Second, I don't think the technology will keep up with back roads and their conditions. Heck, can GPS maps even keep up with roads today? Are even remote control/programmed lawnmowers reliable yet?
And yes, it will take decades, if not a whole generation to adapt to somebody or something else moving the steering wheel and putting on the brakes. I don't even want to imagine the headaches as the "bugs" get worked out of these new systems. Or the liabilities.Cookie the Dog's Owner
There used to be a show on PBS in the 1970s called Connections, in which science historian James Burke talked about how discoveries and inventions in one field of study get applied to others, and lead to other discoveries and inventions, and how these developments affect society in what are often surprising and unpredictable ways. While scientists and futurists and SF writers looking for a good plot hook have often made accurate guesses about what new things might one day be invented, they only rarely forsee the different ways these inventions will be used, or the kinds of social changes they will bring about.
Just think about how automobiles changed the world. The design of cities and highways evolved to accomodate them. Horses went from being semi-expendable beasts of burden, and a source of urban pollution, to prized pets and show animals. Personal mobility became a mass-market commodity and a baseline cultural assumption. People could live farther away from their workplaces; visiting relatives in distant cities became easier; the "road trip" and "road picture" evolved. Whole subcultures grew up around the automobile, this blog included.
When the cars start driving themselves, what then? We know that it will change things, but none of us can guess at the full scope of that change. Will your car take itself to the dealership for the 50,000 mile oil change? Will automated trucks cruise the Interstates, stopping only to refuel? Will there be taxicabs without cabbies, and buses without bus drivers? Will future soccer moms send the kids off to school by themselves in the minivan, which will then return to the garage autonomously? For those (like me) who enjoy taking a car with good dynamics down a winding road under manual control, will there still be room for us on streets and highways filled with robocars?
Your guesses are as good as mine. Share your thoughts in the comments below.