Commentary

Sometime around 1980 I met Syd Mead, the visionary futurist and designer. In the course of our conversation he predicted the automobile would evolve into the electronic horse and the electronic herd.

What on earth do you mean by that? I asked.

Well, Syd said, in the Old West a cowboy would stumble out of a saloon, climb up on his horse, fall asleep and the horse would walk home. You didn’t have to tell the horse where to go, it knew the way back to the barn.

And back then, he continued, herds of buffalos would gallop across the Great Plains, turning and wheeling as if they were just one big mass. In fact, he said, we can still see that behavior today in flocks of birds or schools of fish. It’s as if they are all of one mind and know exactly when to turn in another direction without crashing into each other.

In the future, he told me, we will have cars that can do the same thing. They will be able to drive by themselves and maneuver their way through traffic, all “talking” to each other electronically.

I’ve never forgotten that meeting. He made a convert of me that day and ever since I’ve been anxiously awaiting the day when autonomous (driverless) vehicles would become reality. Finally, that day arrived last month at the DARPA Urban Challenge.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is part of the Defense Department and is interested in autonomous vehicles for purely military reasons. It’s focused on developing autonomous supply trucks so fewer of our courageous soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are exposed to roadside bombs.

So a few years back it organized a competition for autonomous vehicles with millions of dollars in prize money. And, wow, is it working. The technology needed for autonomous vehicles now is accelerating rapidly.

To me, autonomous vehicles represent the next big breakthrough in the automotive industry. Think about it. You’ll never have to deal with traffic jams again. Let your car handle the hassles while you read, sleep or get some work done. And forget about searching for a parking spot. Just have your car drop you at the door and let it go park itself.

Then, when you need your car, pick up your cell phone and call it. Thanks to GPS and satellite linkups it will know where to come get you. If you have children, you can toss them the car keys to go visit their friends or work on a project at the library.

If you’re a senior citizen who shouldn’t be driving on the highways or at night, no worries, you don’t have to surrender your mobility. And best of all we can go back to drinking and driving again, since we really won’t be driving!

Thanks to DARPA I think we’ll see the first phase in autonomous military vehicles within a decade. And some time after that I expect to be able to march down to my local dealer and buy my first electronic horse.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and Speed Channel.