Friday, April 20, 2012

Autonomous cars? Surely, you're joking

No, I'm not. And stop calling me Shirley.

Five years ago, I would have called someone nuts if they said cars would soon be driving themselves. But next week, I'm going to say just that. On Monday I'm headed to Detroit for the 2012 SAE World Congress, and the rise of driver-less cars is one of the points I'm going to make as part of a panel on the future of telematics.

Saying that cars could or should drive themselves might get some people up in arms.  Am I advocating taking away the driver's rights? What happened to The Ultimate Driving Experience? What about Fahrvergn├╝gen?

I enjoy driving as much as anyone. And yes, generally, I want to be in control of my car. But I see the writing on the wall, and it comes from three things:

Elderly boomers
My grandfather told me once a couple years before his death that drivers today were so rude
—they were always giving him the finger. I sympathized, until I took a ride with him. I white-knuckled it the whole way as he drove 40 mph in a 70 zone, straddling two lanes of traffic and getting plenty of hand gestures all the way. He didn't drive for much longer after that, fortunately for him and everyone else on the roadway.

My dad is still a good driver, but slowly and surely, my parents are getting there. What happens when all the boomers lose their ability to drive safely? Especially in North America, where distances are so long and independence is a given?

Gen AO
Otherwise called Generation Always On, this group includes anyone who picks their car based on their phone, rather than the other way around. There's a whole generation of people whose need to connect and socialize is far stronger than their need to drive. I'd argue this narrow generational definition could be extended to almost all of us at one time or another.

How many of us (not asking for hands) have been guilty of glancing at their phone while driving? Okay, now how many of us have seen other drivers drift a little too far out of their lane (looking at their phones, presumably) and then all of a sudden snap back to their lane? Right, me too.

It's not just Google; it's also a bunch of very smart and driven (pun intended) people at lots of universities and high-tech companies. Google has motive: it can generate a lot more ad revenue if people are searching, and people can search a lot more if they're not driving. University researchers also have motive: Driver-less cars pose a very challenging problem that would be prestigious to solve. What's more, Google's proven it can be done—on real roads—with their driverless car. Enough that they convinced Nevada to pass a law allowing autonomous cars, with other states soon to follow.

Add those three things together, and what do you get? Yep—driverless cars, sooner than you might think. If I get to the point where I'm endangering others, I'll willingly let my car drive, rather than give up mobility. And wouldn't we all be a little safer if cars came with a cruise-control-like automatic pilot? Yes, I'm sure we would. This is the one thing that could permanently solve any form of distracted driving: a human not driving. I was never was much for Knight Rider, but KITT? Bring it on.

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