Over the past couple of years I have become increasingly intrigued about the future of the self driving automobile. Since I wrote this Sept. 2012 post on the subject, robo car technology has come a long way. They now have self driving vehicles that can satisfactorily handle the vast majority of real life traffic issues better than human drivers can. Human error is, after all, the most significant factor in nearly all automobile crashes.
While many car manufacturers are working hard on driverless technology, they know that adoption will take time. Attitudes have already changed a lot in the past couple of years, but people are going to have to get far more used to the idea of driverless cars than they are today.
For this reason, car manufacturers are releasing the technology piecemeal as driver assist features, mostly in high end vehicles. A number of car models now offer parking assist where drivers take their hands off the steering wheel in parking lots as the car finds a spot and safely steers the vehicle into the spot.
Right now the driver has to operate the gas and brake pedals, but that's only because manufacturers are worried that people aren't yet comfortable enough with the idea of the car completely parking itself while the driver touches no controls. These parking systems are far more reliable in avoiding parking lot collisions than human drivers.
As has been the case with many other features on cars, driver assist features will trickle down the line into mid-range and eventually economy vehicles. A steady stream of new features will ease drivers into the whole driverless paradigm. Instead of being fearful of the new technology, people will welcome each new advance.
Most people will hardly recognize the slide from a car completely operated by a human to a car that completely drives itself. They will simply find themselves relaxing and paying attention to what interests them, only occasionally recalling the stone ages when they had to pay attention to traffic conditions moment by moment.
The advancement of driverless technology will necessitate changes to our legal structure. Moreover, in the future as more driverless cars pervade the roadways, I suspect that we will begin to see infrastructure changes. Roads and intersections will be built differently in response to more efficient traffic patterns.
I theorize that this shift will also change the American love affair with automobile ownership. While Americans do love the freedom and status that come from car ownership, I see room for that to change. I like being able to go out and hop in my car and go where I want to go whenever I want to go there. But what if I could do all of that without having to pay to own a huge chunk of metal that spends the vast majority of its time parked?
This KSL article reports on a study that suggests that there could be great benefits to driverless taxis. In my mind's eye I foresee a day when there are actually fewer cars because many people will give up owning their own cars in favor of being able to get a car to take them where they want to go whenever they want to go there.
Parking lots will diminish in size as pick-up/drop-off zones increase in size. Many of these zones will offer features like being covered to keep passengers from having to deal with inclement weather. Companies that own and operate taxis will not have huge parking lots because their cars will be out on the roads much of the time. These companies will have maintenance centers where the cars come as scheduled or when they detect an issue.
I fully expect that there will be several strata in the driverless taxi industry. You will be able to ride in a high end limo, in a low end dive where the seats and floors haven't ever been cleaned, or in a variety of mid-range offerings, all conforming to price range.
One of the things that will drive the adoption of driverless cars will be the aging of America's Baby Boomer generation. This self centered generation will not put up with immobile dependence when they reach the point of being unable to drive safely. They will insist on the freedom that comes from being able to order a car anytime they want and to go wherever they want, all without ever having to deal with a taxi driver.
Some observers believe that driverless technology will also eventually render the whole truck driver culture obsolete, as trucking companies opt for driverless trucks that never require sleep, know how to avoid wrecks, and flawlessly pull in and out of the tightest loading docks.
A friend of mine grouses that he will never trust robo car technology. He thinks it opens the door for others to be able to control where he goes and when he can go there. He fears diminished freedom. I see the opposite.
News reports include numerous stories about terrible accidents involving cars and trucks driven by humans every single day. Just today I saw a story about a horrific accident caused by a drunk driver, several terrible accidents caused by inattentive or tired drivers, a mother that accidentally ran over and killed her own toddler, a driver whose failure to notice a cyclist proved fatal for the cyclist, etc.
Self driving vehicles could have avoided every single one of these incidents. Indeed, I foresee a day when the public not only stops fearing driverless technology, but begins demanding that old vehicles that lack this technology be removed from the public roadways for safety reasons.
The future I anticipate is likely still a very long way off, a couple of decades at least. But I think it's coming. This future will not be free of problems and complaints. After all, we humans seem to have a boundless capacity to gripe, even when things are better than they used to be. But many opportunities await those that embrace the new technology, as many businesses will undoubtedly do. Much to the benefit of all of us.