The future is autonomous
A while ago – several years ago, actually – I wrote a post on electric cars, bemoaning the lack of market penetration, even in the 21st century. It was sort of a prequel to the post The future isn’t what it used to be, where I commented on the lack of technical advancement. There’s another side to these two stories and that’s the one about autonomous vehicles, a.k.a. self-steering cars.
Just like electric cars, self-steering cars have been around for a long time, albeit in a limited sense. Already in the 1920s, there were successful experiments with remote-controlled cars driving in heavy city traffic. But of course the computer power to create fully autonomous cars didn’t exist back then, and instead the research was focusing on getting autonomous cars follow magnetic or electric rails hidden in the streets. This railroad car technology never took off, due to the potentially astronomical costs of amending all the roads in the world with guide rails.
Even with the replacement of guide rails for electronic devices to detect road and lane edges in the 1960s, the cost was still too high except for limited field trials, and it wasn’t until 20 years later we got the first hints at cars being able to detect the roads and lanes all by themselves.
And now, 30 years on, we have fully autonomous cars driving in real live city traffic on a daily basis. Companies like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, Audi, BMW, Nissan and GM are all currently testing driverless cars. And of course we have the famous Google cars.
And gone are any needs to have amended roads with sensors and guide rails. Modern cars know what a road is from looking at it, and know how to stay on it. They also know how to keep their distance from surrounding traffic and how to navigate intersections and multi-lane highways. They do this with higher precision than human drivers and at higher speeds.
In fact, as the technology has matures so quickly (relatively speaking), governments around the world are finding themselves with outdated traffic legislation and are scrambling to catch up. Germany and UK have already passed laws that allow driverless cars to operate in traffic, with the owner of the car responsible for any accidents – even if he or she wasn’t driving at the time.
So what will the future bring? When will we be able to buy our first driverless car? And will we want to?
Well, the benefits of autonomous cars are numerous. First and foremost it will almost certainly cut down road traffic accidents by at least 95%. With high precision driving systems (that never get tired, lost, frustrated, drunk or sick), aided by radar and infrared sensors (allowing them to see in the dark or fog) we would soon enter a period of time where people getting hurt or killed in traffic would be major news. It would be more common to be hit by lightning or winning the lottery than being part of a car crash.
Secondly, it would make traffic much smoother. Human beings aren’t exactly renowned for the logical thinking – and this is especially true when driving – so much of the traffic congestion problems we experience in cities today is down to irrational driver behaviour. Not so with autonomous cars. They will let other vehicles in, they will keep safe distances and reasonable speeds, they will know which routes to avoid at certain times of day and they will communicate with each other in a polite and relaxed manner.
Thirdly, we have convenience. Apart from being able to let go of the rather stressful activity of keeping a metric tonne of heavy machinery on the road at high speeds, we would be able to have our cars pick us up at home and drop us off at work and then go somewhere else to park for the day. No more need to look for parking spaces or waiting for the car to heat up and defrost on cold winter mornings. And, we wouldn’t have to worry about having had a drink for dinner, or being too young or old to drive, or suffering from a disability of some sort. The car would take us where we need to go.
And lastly, it’s the financial aspect. Even though self-steering cars will no doubt be prohibitively expensive at first, prices will soon drop and we could expect autonomous cars to become cheaper than manual cars at some point in the near future. Add to this the reduced need for insurance and the optimal fuel-economy of autonomous cars and you’re sitting on a winner. In the bigger picture, society at large will also benefit, since costs for road traffic accidents and their related human traumas add up to astronomical amounts on a yearly basis.
There are however a few obstacles on the road (no pun intended) to that bright new future. And they’re not related to technical limitations – undoubtedly the technology needed for autonomous cars will become better, cheaper and smaller over time, but even what we have today is perfectly adequate.
No, the problem is more one of human nature. It’s our own inbuilt fears and hangups that will prove to be the most difficult obstacle. And for once I’m not talking about the Luddite syndrome of hating and fearing everything new (that’s another post). No, this time it’s more about loss of control.
Humans are an industrious bunch of monkeys. We keep on inventing more and more advanced ways of staying ahead of the game, of keeping ourselves safe and alive. Fire, stone tools, fur clothes, huts and canoes. And lately interstate multi lane highways, high-rise buildings, water closets and streamed high-definition IP-based television.
But the downside of all our inventions is that it makes us think we’re in control; that we somehow can control life. And that feeling of control is something we don’t want to give up. We assume we always know best. We really are the most arrogant primates on the planet.
This could have an effect on the uptake of self-steering vehicles. Even if autonomous cars will be better drivers than even the most seasoned and experienced rally driver, we will harbour an inbuilt mistrust towards them. A machine could never really drive a car, surely? How would it know what to do if something happens? It would never be as good a driver as I. Or – what if something goes wrong? What if it malfunctions? Then we’ll be stuck in an out-of-control car, running down the streets at rush hour at 90 mph. It’ll be a nightmare!
Yes. It certainly would. But let’s think about it factually: how many airplane crashes have you heard or read about that were caused by autopilot failure? And how many that were contributed to human error? Granted, driving a car is more difficult than flying an airplane, but even so: people being distracted or reacting too slow or being just plain drunk is the main cause of road traffic accidents. Not the cruise control running amok or the automatic break system failing.
Like it or not…
In the end it won’t really matter. Technology have a tendency to march on regardless of any concerns for safety or lack of freedom. Already this year, Mercedes will be selling their S-klasse, with autonomous steering, breaking and lane control systems. Volvo and Ford will follow with their semi-autonomous cars and next year both Audi and Nissan will join the ranks, closely followed by Toyota and Cadillac. And within six years, we will see the first fully autonomous vehicles be available on the market, with Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW and Nissan selling completely self-steering cars in stores around the world. Within five more years, they will be joined by Ford and Daimler.
So it looks like there will be a dozen or so different models of autonomous cars driving around in our everyday traffic within a few years. We will no doubt hate them at first, as they will drive carefully and keep to the speed limits. We will also hate them because they will be very expensive cars and we would also like to be able to afford one. But after a few years, these feelings will most likely fade away, and it’s not unlikely that if you buy a brand new car in 10 years time you will opt for the more convenient self-driving one; if nothing else because of the huge savings you’ll make on the insurance premium.
And fast-forward another 10 years and we can expect to find old-fashioned manually steered vehicles only at the bottom of the range. Instead, all mid-class vehicles will be autonomous and some will boast new trendy features like downloadable driver profiles, so that you can be driven around by famous rally or racing drivers. Or – if you prefer – perhaps a boy-racer profile? Or a senior citizen one? Or a distracted parent one? Sky’s the limit…
Either way, we will have gotten so used to the convenience and safety of autonomous traffic that we will start lobbying for a more extensive and thorough driver’s test programme for those who still choose to drive manually. Within a few more years, a driver’s licence will be as costly and rare as a pilot licence.
The future is bright, the future is now
No doubt my predictions in this post will be wrong. Predictions about the future always are. Mostly because they’re too conservative or too linear. In the 1980s, no one could even imagine the socio-economic impact of the internet. Just like no one in the early 1900s would have been able to predict the meteoric rise in motorised traffic.
But one thing is pretty clear: some years from now, when we’ve gotten old(er), we will most certainly be able to rant on about the good old days to our grandchildren. The good old days when we were still allowed to drive, and cars would still run on highly carcinogenic fossil-based fuels, like petrol. Or diesel, even.
And our grandkids will no doubt roll their eyes, stop pretend to listen or care, get into their chic fuel-cell powered autonomous personal vehicles and drive off, somewhere far far away from your grumpy old self.
* Might not be factually true, although I sure hope it will be.