Contrary to “popular” belief, the idea of autonomous cars, or self-driving cars, is not a product of millennials being too lazy to drive their own cars that they would rather have an artificial intelligence to do it for them. The concept is way older than that, with famed author Isaac Asimov writing in his science fiction short story Sally (first published around May or June in 1953) about self-driving cars that have “positronic brains” and communicate by honking their horns and slamming doors.
In movies, Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man (1993) has perhaps the most realistic depiction of the self-driving car, as it can be driven manually or set to “Auto Mode” where a voice-controlled computer operates the vehicle.
Today, there are several companies, with Google leading the charge, trying their darnedest best to produce such a car. While there have been inroads especially on the technological side that bring the dream tantalizingly close to reality, still the prognosis seems to be on the pessimistic side that it won’t happen until the next decade.
In the Beginning
The quest for autonomous cars began in the 1920s while prototypes appeared only in the 1980s. When Google first became the tech behemoth that it is today, it also started getting serious about its driverless car project. It has since then tested a fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses and Lexus RX luxury crossovers. In 2014 it came up with a compact two-seater that looks kind of a ladybug that didn’t have a steering wheel or brakes and would go no faster than 25 mph. Not exactly the sleek vehicles we have seen in the films.
But then, in 2015, a relative newcomer called Cruise Automation became the first company to sell the technology to make driverless cars possible. Led by its 29-year-old owner Kyle Vogt, Cruise developed an aftermarket kit that will convert an Audi A4 or S4 to a self-driving car. The company’s long-term goal was to make its product work with any vehicle.
Fast-forward to this year and Waymo, Google’s driverless car company, is testing its autonomous minivans without a human driver inside who can take over if something goes wrong. That’s how confident it is with its latest project. Its next step is to get actual passengers aboard the world’s first driverless ride-hailing service in the coming months.
Why Let Cars Drive Themselves?
Well, it would make millennials happy, but certainly driverless cars go beyond the whims and caprices of a new generation. Done right, self-driving car technology offers a whole new experience to the idea of traveling. Here are some of its advantages:
Revolutionize Road Trips
Despite the positive factors that self-driving cars bring to the table, a lot of people are still wary of riding driverless vehicles unless they perfectly adhere to government regulations. But they are missing the point: these revolutionary vehicles may actually render auto safety regulations unnecessary.
Current federal regulations have set standards for everything from the placement of rearview mirrors and steering wheel to the shape of the vehicle, but self-driving cars won’t have use of mirrors or even a steering wheel. With an onboard computer at the helm, people will have fewer things to worry about and more time to enjoy the scenery and the special bonding that the long trip can create.
Imagine a car that thinks and reacts faster than humans, has its “eyes” always open, never gets tired or drunk or prone to road rage, and perhaps most important now, won’t get distracted by a smartphone. Its one and only focus is to drive safely from point A to point B. In short, there won’t be any human error that is the usual cause of accidents in today’s roads.
Programmed for optimum efficiency in acceleration and braking, driverless vehicles can be expected to be fuel efficient and to reduce carbon emissions. And because there will be fewer accidents on the road, there will be a corresponding decrease in traffic congestion.
Definitely More Convenient
For now at least, self-driving vehicles promise more hands-free time during the commute, which means you can already do your tasks on your laptop while still on your way to work, or just catch up on some much-needed sleep. Eventually, this hands-free feature will benefit the disabled and the elderly who could be mobile even if they don’t know how to or can’t drive a car.
Completely autonomous vehicles as seen on various movies and TV shows like Demolition Man and Knight Rider may really be well on their way to reality in the next decade or so thanks to further advancements in technology. But there remains a very specific challenge that might be harder to hurdle: the human factor.
Despite people’s openness to the idea of traveling inside a driverless vehicle, as expressed in a 2013 study by Cisco Systems that showed 57 percent of the 1,500 consumers surveyed across 10 countries would do that, that trust won’t extend when it involves children. The same people were asked if they were willing to let their kids ride in a self-driving car, and only 46 percent said they would.
The human factor is also front and center when it comes to safety with self-driving vehicles in their present version, which can be accurately described as “semi-autonomous” as they still need human intervention in situations beyond their current capabilities. Humans are susceptible to trust their “smart” vehicles so much that they forget that they may still be needed in a backup, fail-safe role. As a result, car accidents might not really decline with the introduction to the public of self-driving vehicles unless these are capable of full autonomy and won’t rely on humans anymore.
And speaking of accidents, there could be a shift in business model for car insurers. That instead of providing consumer coverage to millions of people in case of accidents due to human error, it’s the much fewer car companies that they insure against liabilities from their autonomous cars’ technical failure.
When all is said and done, we may get the conclusion that the world is not yet ready for self-driving cars, but history has shown us that we have been waiting for nearly a hundred years to step aboard a driverless car and really, really enjoy the ride. From the looks of it, it’s them vehicles that are not yet ready for the world.