Senior Wall Street Journal Editor Dan Neil predicts in this op-ed that the robo car (i.e. no human driver) is on the cusp of going mainstream. He predicts nearly 100% adoption within 25 years. While the praises Mr. Neil sings of this coming paradigm shift are alluring, I'm somewhat skeptical. After all, I've been hearing about the near future self driving car and flying car my whole life.
Mr. Neil begins his article by describing the flawless execution of an automated BMW on a challenging California race track. This seems odd because it is obviously a highly controlled environment and the car is merely 'replaying' the driving previously done by a professional human driver. This seems a long way from being ready for operating in real time traffic. Why not showcase the Google driverless car that has already completed nearly half a million accident free miles in real traffic and is already legal to operate in Nevada?
Neil spends much of the article working to disabuse readers of the "myth" of "the American Romance with the Automobile," which he chalks up to little more than an effective marketing campaign that is actually "a massive, crushing lie." Neil is wrong.
Marketing campaigns are only successful when the broad customer experience somewhat resembles the campaign's claims. Everyone understands that marketing emphasizes the positive while de-emphasizing the negative. But campaigns that go too far afield from reality fail. By Neil's own admission, this campaign has succeeded for more than a century, so it can't really be as big of a lie as he claims. Still, even the automobile romance could be overcome by vehicles that offer greater freedom than the current system.
The big advantage of driverless cars, claims Neil, is the immense productivity jump people will experience by being freed from operating a vehicle while commuting. Maybe some people will just waste time, but Neil says that work addicted Americans will use their commuting time to unleash one of the greatest waves of productivity the world has ever known. Frankly, this sounds more like evangelizing than reporting.
Many readers have responded to Neil's article with observations of their own. Most seem to accept the proposition that the driverless car is on its way. Some relish the thought. Some think adoption will take far longer than suggested. Some doubt the proposed 100% adoption rate.
Some readers think the driverless car will be slowly adopted like most other mass market products. It will initially be expensive and will be used only by high end buyers. Many bugs will be worked out of the system as competitors find better and cheaper ways to build driverless cars that work. It will take a long time before people at the lower end get such cars.
Several readers suggest that the trucking industry will likely be an early adopter, with private vehicles coming on board later. One reader imagines huge savings and safety improvements from getting sleepy (druggy), error prone human truck drivers off the road and off tucking company payrolls. Others suggest that it will be a long time before a truck can drive itself very far without having a qualified human ready to take over operation in the event of a situation the automated system can't handle.
A commercial airline pilot friend recently regaled me with descriptions of the marvels of automated flight. He said that pilots joke that cockpits will eventually have only instruments, a pilot, and a dog. The pilot will be there to take the instruments in case of autopilot failure. The dog will be there to bite the pilot if he tries to otherwise touch the instruments.
In a more serious tone my friend wonders whether the pilot will still have the necessary skills if he has to take the controls. The same could be true of autopilot cars. At first they would only operate with a qualified driver at the wheel—someone that would have to be sufficiently alert and trained to handle system failures. Perhaps over time, as systems improve, the human copilot will become superfluous and people will lose the skills necessary to respond to a driving emergency.
Then some of the scenarios imagined by various readers might become reality: cars that ferry elderly and handicapped people wherever they need to go, RVs that drive you to your destination while you sleep or watch TV, and the like. Maybe even teens that make out without ever 'parking.' But we're likely a very long way from that point.
Many readers point out technical and non-technical problems with Neil's driverless utopia. Who, for example, is liable in the event of an accident; the non-driving car 'operator' or the car company? I personally wonder about being able to go off the beaten track; something I do on a fairly regular basis. I suppose that most of these issues would be worked out bit by bit in an evolutionary process throughout the extensive adoption period.
Maybe Neil is right when he suggests that a quarter century from now self driven motor vehicles will be a distant memory and we will engage in all kinds of tasks while buzzing about in our autopilot cars. Or maybe, as has been the case with some hybrid and electric vehicles, people will still be wondering years from now why autopilot cars are so slow to catch on.