Most car enthusiasts hate the idea of cars that can drive themselves. But autonomous cars will get 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.
The biggest hurdles to autonomous cars will be legal, not technical.
Just look at how much control we've already ceded to the computers under the hood. Anti-lock brakes, which are consistently better at threshold braking than mere mortals, are pretty much standard equipment. So are traction control and stability control. We now have blind spot detection, lane departure warning, active lane control, and even self-parking.
Now comes the next step. Mercedes-Benz and Audi recently demonstrated Traffic Jam Assist, which uses adaptive cruise control and automatic steering to completely take control of a car up to 60 kilometers an hour (about 37 mph). Google has racked up tens of thousands of miles on its fleet of fully autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids on California roads. The technology will be showroom ready before the end of the decade.
The biggest hurdles will be legal, not technical. For example, who's at fault when one of these cars gets in an accident? And how will the police pull over an autonomous car if they need to? But we'll resolve those issues, and when we do, autonomous cars will have a bigger impact on society than when the first horseless carriages appeared over a century ago.
Up to now, driving an automobile was only possible for people who could pass a driver exam. The very young and the very old were excluded. So were most disabled people, and many others who simply could not master a machine. But once we get autonomous cars, personal transportation will open up to every single segment of society, morning, day and night.
Need a ride? No problem. Just call a car and it will come right to where you are.
However, that may not automatically translate into millions of more car sales. Many households will go back to owning one automobile because it will be able to accommodate many family members, taking one to work and another to school, dropping them off as their schedule requires, then automatically returning to pick them up at the proper time. The savings per household could easily exceed $5,000 per year per car when you factor in monthly payments, insurance, maintenance and fuel costs. You tell me, what household wouldn't like an extra five grand in spending money?
In fact, many people may decide not to own a car since services like Zipcar, which rent automobiles by the hour, will be conveniently available from your phone. Need a ride? No problem. Just call a car and it will come right to where you are, thanks to the GPS in your mobile phone. After you've reached your destination the car can go park itself, or run off to meet another caller. In fact, who needs Zipcar? Some people may just post the (paid) use of their autonomous cars on Craigslist.
Interiors will be designed to become more like living rooms.
Autonomous cars are going to change the way cars look, or at least the interiors will be dramatically different. Out go the steering wheel, stalks and buttons. Out go the brake and gas pedals. Out goes the gear shift lever. Come to think of it, who needs gauges or an instrument cluster anymore? And who says the front seats have to face forward? Interiors will be designed to become more like living rooms, or dens. And since you'll be able to cook and sleep in your vehicle, should you so choose, some people will choose to live in them. No more property taxes!
Speaking of living in your car, autonomous RV's 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, with autonomous cars we can go back to drinking and driving!
We can expect a dramatic decline since computers don't get distracted, tired or drunk.
Driver error is the major cause of traffic accidents and fatalities, so we can expect a dramatic decline since computers don't get distracted, tired or drunk. Autonomous cars will not eliminate traffic accidents. People will still get killed. But we will drop to a fraction of the 32,000 fatalities that occur every year just in the United States.
And here's the best news for enthusiasts. We don't have to buy autonomous cars. We can stick to driving our own cars by ourselves, zipping around the autonomous ones, free to put the pedal to the metal, enjoying the open roads in this great country of ours that are no longer crowded by the boneheads who don't know what they're doing.