Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Are you ready to stop micromanaging your car?

I will get to the above question. Honest. But before I do, allow me to pose another one: When autonomous cars go mainstream, will anyone even notice?

The answer to this question depends on how you define the term. If you mean completely and absolutely autonomous, with no need for a steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal, then yes, most people will notice. But long before these devices stop being built into cars, another phenomenon will occur: people will stop using them.

Allow me to rewind. Last week, Tesla announced that its Model S will soon be able to “steer to stay within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by reading road signs and using traffic-aware cruise control.” I say soon because these functions won't be activated until owners download a software update in the coming weeks. But man, what an update.

Tesla may now be at the front of the ADAS wave, but the wave was already forming — and growing. Increasingly, cars are taking over mundane or hard-to-perform tasks, and they will only become better at them as time goes on. Whether it’s autonomous braking, automatic parking, hill-descent control, adaptive cruise control, or, in the case of the Tesla S, intelligent speed adaptation, cars will do more of the driving and, in so doing, socialize us into trusting them with even more driving tasks.

Tesla Model S: soon with autopilot
In other words, the next car you buy will prepare you for not having to drive the car after that.

You know what’s funny? At some point, the computers in cars will probably become safer drivers than humans. The humans will know it, but they will still clamor for steering wheels, brake pedals, and all the other traditional accoutrements of driving. Because people like control. Or, at the very least, the feeling that control is there if you want it.

It’s like cameras. I would never think of buying a camera that didn’t have full manual mode. Because control! But guess what: I almost never turn the mode selector to M. More often than not, it’s set to Program or Aperture Priority, because both of these semi-automated modes are good enough, and both allow me to focus on taking the picture, not on micromanaging my camera.

What about you? Are you ready for a car that needs a little less micromanagement?

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