… and I don’t like it. Recently, I’ve seen a bunch of coverage about the “driverless” car of the future and the progress being made by the likes of BMW, Volvo and Google, each with their own vested interest in this technology. According to these reports, which I’m reposting for context, a commercially viable autonomous car is almost ready. I’ll get to the reports in a second but first watch this clip from Schwarzenegger’s “super-smash-box-office movie”, The 6th Day. Skip to the 7:15 mark.
Haha, the “Laser Razor”. I want one. Seriously, that would be awesome. Right, so if that’s the goal of this technology – being able to do anything but the task of driving and then re-assume control on a whim – how far away are we from that? Well some, like BMW, are closer than others. With a few discreet hardware mountings, this otherwise normal looking 5 series is good enough for the highway – in Germany. Take a look:
Staying in Europe, an EU commission is funding its own project, now in it’s final phase of testing called, Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE). That’s right, road trains. The idea here is to have a bunch of
lemmings automated cars follow a lead vehicle, in this case, a truck that’s being driven by a person. Wait, what? SARTRE “aims to develop strategies and technologies to allow vehicle platoons to operate on normal public highways with significant environmental, safety and comfort benefits.” Anyway, that’s the mission statement. Check out the demonstration in the video below.
I guess being led by a professional driver is the same as putting your life in the hands of a capable commercial airline pilot or say a train conductor or a cruise ship captain. Too soon? No word yet on how to board this train or the policy on making pit stops to pee.
Then there’s Google. The internet search engine and friendly tech giant we all know and love. They’ve been behind driverless cars for a few years now, throwing their own proprietary technology into the ring. Led by Sebastian Thrun, the “Google Car” project has grown from blasting around parking lot courses to driving nearly 200,000 miles – many of them in Nevada, the first and only state to pass a law (lobbied by Google) allowing driverless vehicles on its roads. In his TED talk, Thrun explains his vision of a future that includes autonomous cars and his personal goal to reduce automobile accidents leading to serious injury or death.
Ok so the Google car isn’t quite as graceful as say the BMW, with its ungainly rooftop apparatus, but then again, it has to yield to pedestrians, look at traffic lights, stop signs and all the other distractions the city can throw at it, all of which are far more complex than highway driving or playing follow the leader with a truck.
So here we have a pretty strong case for the unmanned autonomous vehicle a.k.a. UAV, a.k.a. drone. It’s more efficient. It’s safer. It allows those in the driver’s seat to become passengers, again. It allows the
driver person sitting behind the steering wheel the freedom to do multitasking things like eating breakfast with a coffee in one hand and an iPad in other – without getting a ticket. Not to mention the ability of reclining the seat and sleeping over long trips or perhaps the most common use, as your own personal taxi, escorting you home after a night out on the town. Actually, that last one would probably still be illegal.
The idea of part-time driving, which essentially involves pulling your car out the garage in the morning, putting it in ‘auto-drive’, then assuming control to only to find parking (of course, cars can now park themselves but finding parking is another story), isn’t that bat-shit crazy at all. Take commercial airliners as an example. Its a known fact that, for years now, pilots take control of lift-off and landing while leaving the majority of the flight to autopilot. Planes, therefore cars, right?
Our plight over innovating the automobile of course, doesn’t end with making driving more efficient. More time and even more money has already been poured into green technologies which have led to cars that pollute less while getting better fuel economy. Despite these advances, some say that cars kill cities by simply being driven into them. The thinking here, like SARTRE, is that although cars are emitting less poisonous gases than ever (some even clean the ambient air) there’s still the problem of congestion which could be reduced by efficient drones. Like a bad cold, congestion is always unwelcome as it clogs the main passages of a city during peak traffic hours. Some, like the researchers at the Karlsruhe Institue of Technology (KIT) (this isn’t a Night Rider pun I swear), say that self-driving, “cognitive” cars could not only reduce accidents, but reduce traffic jams as well by being faster than human drivers at one thing: reaction time. Watch:
Cars moving in file, connected only by sensors and reaction time, would behave more like the connected passenger cars of a train, thereby increasing fluidity on our roads. I like it. I think traffic mode should be an app.
But what of taxis, street cars and buses? Or long haul truck drivers? Couldn’t these jobs be automated as well? No, wait I have one better. As Derek Edwards over at Progressive Transit sees it, cars are the problem. So my solution, why have taxis at all? They only add to the congestion. Derek talks about car sharing as a possible solution which made me think of this company, WhipCar. They have a pretty progressive idea themselves when it comes to car sharing. Basically, car owners can rent out their own vehicles when they’re not being used. Of course, you’d have to be cool with letting strangers drive your car but if that’s being done by the car itself you’d have nothing to worry about. So you see there’s no need for taxis because if enough people put their cars up for rent you’re taking Mike’s Ford Fusion home from the bar.
Besides these progress reports generating some buzz, driverless cars aren’t seen as a priority on most people’s agendas. So after reading about that highly-automated BMW 5 series (above) on Autoblog the other day, I posted a question in the comments asking, “who’s clamoring for this tech?”. My implied negative tone was quickly given a -1 or a thumbs down rating and within an hour or two I had two replies. The first listed all the wonderful benefits and comforts that non-driving allows; mainly eating, sleeping, gaming and watching movies. The second commenter claims that driving enthusiasts are wanton of this technology since driverless car will keep to the driverless lanes, freeing up the enthusiast lane for passing. Most other commenters echoed the former view with the odd comment stating the benefits of not having to deal with bad drivers anymore. Hmm… bad drivers. What constitutes a bad driver? Well according to the aforementioned researchers and developers, we all are – because we’re human. To err is human after all thus making us inherently prone to driving accidents. So instead of trying to make people better drivers, we’re investing in technologies that take control of that task for us, which in turn, make us better, safer passengers.
And that’s all fantastic, it really is. But a part of me can’t help feeling like we’re coming to an end of an era too quickly. The idea of driving as a program, convenient to the ways of coding software, is frightening to me. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that, “we shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.” We came from a time of designing cars as extensions of ourselves to becoming quietly docile, willingly submitting our autonomy to this new, “cognitive” technology. In doing so, we become dependent on it just as we have with so many others before it. Handing over control will change our relationship with the car forever from something that used to communicate with us, something we connected with, to something else: a mobile room, which is more of an extension of our homes than of ourselves, really. Like passengers on a plane then, we detach from the outside world, lowering our awareness, as we distract ourselves with gaming or movies or work to pass the time. A driverless car is the type of technology that does nothing to further the human condition, our autonomy or sapience. I don’t think I could ever ride in one without staring out the windows.