Automation, it’s happening everywhere. Many of us have bid goodbye to notebooks, personal digital assistants, paper calendars, but is the steering wheel really headed for extinction? I mull over the positive, negative, and possible unexpected side effects of an automated driving future after the jump.
From the perspective of an automotive enthusiast, the knee-jerk reaction to the news of Google’s unveiling of a prototype driverless car could be one of fear and hatred. Fear and hatred are strong words, but when something appears in such a great contrast to a passion, like driving, strong reactions will happen. But what about the other side of this story? Google’s own blog post about the project optimistically predicts it as the following:
Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving. Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.
I’ll admit, when I first heard about this yesterday morning, it didn’t really bother me much. I’m reasonable, I can see that despite my wanting everyone to enjoy kicking a clutch pedal, rowing their own gears, and exploring handling limits, there are some people who just aren’t into that. And in Florida at least, options for public transport are slim. It’s hot and humid here, which is very tiring, and everything is spread out too far to be within walking distance. There was a great idea to alleviate this by bringing light rail but unfortunately our Governor Rick Scott didn’t think it would pay off, even with federal funding being offered to help the project. Now, I could sit and stew about the high number of poorly trained drivers out there on the roads and how little sense nixing the rail idea was or I could see this Google car as a possible way around having to lean on government funding that never materializes.
What worries us…
Change is scary. In the past, we’ve had to deal with the oil crisis in the ’70s and the malaise era that followed, ending more recently with the hopeful resurgence of some of the largest engines ever, as well as great leaps in technology from high speed cars like the Veyron, to hybrids such as the Prius, to the new breed of hybrid hypercars. We’ve come a long way in the past 50 years, heck, even in the past 20 years. And when something like a driverless car comes along, it can be concerning. When the news first came up yesterday, I didn’t really think much of it. Then as the nice man on NPR continued to talk, projections were made about this having a market but not for another ten years at least. But then they went on to talk about the possibility of the majority being driverless by 2050 and my stomach started to feel a little queasy. The thing is though, as long as there are those of us that live for the thrill of the drive, automated cars will not be mandatory. And that’s where the upside comes in.
But then, the opportunities…
As Google mentioned, things like drunk or distracted driving could become a thing of the past… when the technology eventually becomes both accessible and affordable. This possibility for driverless cars hit me previously, back when that whole deal with light rail fell through. There are dangerous drivers everywhere in Florida. We’re very much a melting pot state. We used to have a reputation for just being a state full of retirees, and more recently crazy people. But what it really is, I think, is culture clash happening on a large scale. We’ve got the old folks, new immigrants here from the Caribbean, Mexico, and other parts of the world, and people vacationing here from all over the US and again, the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that there is head butting going on in traffic. As I mentioned before, you can’t get anywhere in Florida without a car or without waiting for a bus. Waiting out in the heat and humidity of the day and nobody wants that. So in a way, many people who have no interest in driving, and therefore not much interest in learning the proper and safe way to do it, are forced to drive. In an ideal world, I’d like to see greater licensing training, similar to Europe, but chances of that are slim to none. Maybe in this case the market could help us out. If I’m one of the only people driving, and the rest of those on the road are being driven by automated cars, it could be a much safer prospect than having to worry about whether another person knows about the right of way or other rules of the road, or whether they’re paying attention, as it is now.
Out of left field: Is an automated car the ultimate stance car?
This facet of the issue just occurred to me this afternoon. All the time I see friends and sometimes even myself get angry over a perfect condition sports car being lowered to the point where the car’s suspension geometry and driving dynamics are destroyed. It’s essentially turned into a car that’s more fit for parking than driving comfortably. If someone were to start out with a car that was never meant to be driven by a person to begin with, and a modicum of safety is applied in the amount of poke or stretch a tire is given, then there’s no reason to be angry. Granted, it will take time for the technology to become affordable enough to be considered as the basis of such a project, but I don’t see people running out of wild ideas of ways to customize a car. Other interesting ideas come along like what would an automated drag race look like? Or an automated NASCAR? Could a robot take a car sideways into a drift? The possibilities are endless. The important thing to realize is that we’re not going anywhere… except if we want to drive there ourselves. Automation is still a ways off, but just like a Toyota Camry, just because an automated car will exist does not mean it will end car culture as we know it. As long as we’re around to drool over spec sheets and bring junked cars back from the dead, the driver will carry on. Photos courtesy of Google’s blog post.