It is the stuff of science fiction.
You have errands to run, a friend to visit, a concert or a baseball game to attend.
You slide into your car and punch in the destination. It is the last driving decision you will make during the trip.
You own a driver-less car. It has no steering wheel, no gas nor brake pedal. It will take you to your destination, leave on its own to find a parking space, then return to pick you up when you summon it.
During your journey, you can read a book, take a nap, have a cocktail. Nothing is required of you except, I suspect, to have the kind of money it will cost to afford this kind of sophisticated technology.
This is no 22nd Century scenario. The technology exists now. Several automotive manufacturers — BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Nisan, Toyota, GM and Ford among them — plan to introduce vehicles with autonomous capabilities in the next few years.
Experts predict that by 2035, most self-driving vehicles will be operated completely independent from a human occupant’s control.
In the meantime, four electric autonomous vans successfully drove 8,000 miles from Italy to China in 2010. The vehicles were developed in a research project backed by European Union funding by the University of Parma, Italy.
That same year, a driver-less Audi reached the 14,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak in 27 minutes. A Prius modified by Google successfully managed the famously twisty Lombard Street in San Francisco along with the Golden Gate Bridge.
Google made a splash on the social media circuit this past week by showing off its version of the driver-less car. They were prototypes but they met the most important requirement of the autonomous vehicle: They operated entirely on their own.
In a short film clip, various passengers were given a demonstration ride. All responded with enthusiasm. The most intriguing was a blind man who spoke of the “big part of my life that would be brought back to me” with such a vehicle.
So this all good news, right? The future belongs to us. After all, robots drive better than people, accidents would decline along with the number of traffic cops, ambulance-chasing attorneys and the cost of insurance, drunk driving would be marginalized and gas mileage would improve.
But there are more than a few bumps in the road.
Jonathan Swift once observed, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Who among us wants to be the bold man who trusts a driver-less machine to safely transport his family? It’s kind of like the first guy to try the parachute. Everyone says it should work, but….
Highways are dangerous places, full of speeders, red-light runners, jaywalkers, road ragers, people with a belly full of booze or a head full of dope. Unless every driver on the road is in a driver-less car, the dangers are great even with collision avoidance and GPS systems.
Which leads me to believe that the earliest generations of these cars will provide the security of a steering wheel and brake pedal. At least any one that I’m riding in.
And much as I appreciate the genius and dedication of the engineers who are bringing this phenomenon to pass, I can’t help but dwell on the auto industry’s record on safety and its decided lack of ethics.
General Motors, for example, has already recalled more cars and trucks in the U.S. this year than it has sold here in the five years since it filed for bankruptcy, according to CNN. Since that filing in June 2009, GM has sold 12.1 million vehicles in the United States. Total U.S. recalls: 13.8 million.
Chief among them was 2.6 million of its small cars due to faulty ignition switches, which could shut off the engine during driving and thereby prevent the air bags from inflating. At least 13 deaths have resulted from the flaw which had been known to GM for at least a decade but never publicized prior to the recall being declared.
Of course, that doesn’t touch Ford that once famously recalled 21 million vehicles from 10 model years for a problem that caused some vehicles to slip from park into reverse. Records show Ford’s solution for that problem, which investigators linked to 6,000 accidents and nearly 100 deaths, was to send drivers a warning sticker to put on the dashboard.
Then there’s Ford’s famous Pinto. Before the car ever reached the market, concerns emerged that a rear-end collision might cause the Pinto to blow up — the positioning of the fuel tank sparked fears it could be punctured in a crash and cause a fire or an explosion. But instead of fixing the Pinto’s design, Ford determined it would be cheaper to settle any lawsuits resulting from the car’s flaws.
Are these the people I want to whisk me away on a robotic magic carpet?
There are other issues, of course. Who’s liable in an accident if nobody is driving? These cars are products of computer software. What if you car’s system was hacked and your car is stolen? With you in it. Or someone thinks it would be funny to send you off the Santa Monica pier?
According to one published report, autonomous cars relying on lane markings cannot decipher faded, missing, or incorrect lane markings. Markings covered in snow, or old lane markings left visible can hinder autonomous cars’ ability to stay in lane. Given the state of this country’s infrastructure, that could take a lot of paint.
It would seem as though a lot of real-world problems need to be solved before we run, checkbook in hand, down to our local robo-car dealer.
If and when they are, it will be a fascinating leap forward into the future.