Autonomous cars will be here faster than most people realize. Slowly but surely, automobiles are doing more of our driving for us. It’s only a matter of time before they take over completely.
Many people tell me how much they hate the idea of self-driving cars, but I think they forget how much control they’ve already turned over to the computers under the hood.
First came antilock brakes, which proved far better at braking than mere mortals. Then came traction control, followed by electronic stability control. We now have blindspot detection, lane-departure warning, active lane control and even self-parking.
Mercedes and Audi recently demonstrated Traffic Jam Assist, which uses adaptive cruise control and automatic steering to take full control of a car up to 37 mph (60 km/h). And Google has racked up tens of thousands of miles on its fleet of fully autonomousPriuses in California. See? It’s only a matter of time.
The biggest hurdles will be legal ones, not technical. But the industry will get over them, and when it does, the autonomous car likely will transform transportation and society as much as when the first automobiles appeared over a century ago.
Up to now, driving an automobile has been possible only for people who can pass a driver exam. The very young and very old are excluded. Many disabled people cannot drive a car, either. But once we get autonomous cars, personal transportation will open up to all segments of society, all the time.
Since the cars will be able to drive themselves, I can see many families owning only one automobile. That car will be able to ferry different family members to different jobs or to school, dropping them off as their schedule requires, then automatically returning home to pick up someone else.
In fact, many people may decide not to own a car since services like Zip Car, which rents automobiles by the hour, will be conveniently available from your phone. Need a ride? No problem. Just call a car and it will come to your closest location, thanks to your GPS mobile phone.
Autonomous cars will have an especially dramatic impact on automotive design. Out goes the steering wheel and pedals. Who needs gauges or an instrument cluster anymore?
Interiors will be designed to become more like living rooms or dens. In fact, who says the front seats have to face forward? And since you’ll be able to cook and sleep in your car, I believe some people actually will choose to live in them. No more property taxes!
Speaking of living in your car, autonomous recreational vehicles will make vacationing much more relaxing. I can see entire tribes of traveling retirees meandering across the country at their leisure, drinks in hand. Oh yes, autonomous cars will make drinking and driving socially acceptable.
Driver error is the major cause of traffic accidents and fatalities, so we can expect a dramatic decline as computers don’t get distracted, tired or drunk. Autonomous cars will not eliminate traffic accidents, but we will drop to a fraction of the 32,000 fatalities we now suffer every year just in the U.S.
Traffic density will increase because cars will be able to run much closer to each other, and “drafting” also will improve fuel economy while reducing emissions.
I think we’ll see autonomous cars in showrooms about a decade from now. Woe to the auto maker that is not ready for this transformative technology. It’ll be the biggest thing to hit the market since the advent of the horseless carriage.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.