When pictures of the Google autonomous car prototype started flashing through my feed on Tuesday night, I immediately thought: This is it. The car of my dreams has arrived.
Anything that takes guesswork of ordinary commutes can only be a good thing. More often than not, driving is a pain in the seat.
It wasn't because of the design. The prototype looks like a Tamagotchi, or, at worst, some kind of futuristic suppository. And it wasn't because of the minimal performance details that Google announced. Twenty-five miles per hour is school-zone speed, or empty-parking-lot speed. When I think of autonomous cars – and I think of them a lot when I'm in stalled highway traffic, two miles from home but 30 minutes or more from a cold tall boy – I like to imagine that they can at least approach current highway velocity.
As for the no steering wheel, gas pedal, brake, or gearshift, well, that sounds fine to me as well. Anything that takes guesswork of ordinary commutes can only be a good thing. More often than not, driving is a pain in the seat.
Not everyone agrees. In a Car and Driver blog post this week, magazine Editor-In-Chief Eddie Alterman wrote, "those too timid for the dust and heat of the open highway have finally created the perfect device with which to torment the self-determined. The autonomous automobile is here to steal our freedoms and turn us into soft-brained, incapacitated jelly people on the road to an Idiocracy event horizon."
If you want to feel the thrill of downshifting, you can always sign up for a track day, or take your kids to K1 Speed on a Saturday afternoon.
That's the predictable response. For the dedicated gearhead, one who's delusional enough to believe that the "heat and dust of the open highway" actually constitutes an essential non-dystopian human experience, I can see how this new Google toy might constitute a worst-nightmare scenario. It began in the mid-90s when the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight appeared on the event horizon. They were vehicles that were more like efficient computers than machines to be tinkered with and retrofitted. They weren't fun to drive in the traditional sense, but they were fairly easy to operate and inexpensive to own. Then came the Nissan Leaf, which furthered the Pokemon-ing of automobiles, followed by a brief reprieve with the Tesla Model S, the new-era car that even car guys could love.
But now, with these published photos of the Google autonomous car, and with the overwhelmingly positive public response, all the driving nuts are waking up screaming. For them, this is worse than the ending of Brazil, where the dystopian bureaucrats permanently brainwash and rob us of our freedom. For the rest of us, it may be more like that movie's dream sequences, where we fly free, unencumbered by life's soot and garbage, at last. Could it really be happening? Finally?
The real revolution here doesn't involve the end of driving, which can be really fun in a controlled scenario, even if it's still supremely dangerous. Rockcrawling in a big-ass truck is a great weekend leisure activity in an off-road park. If you want to feel the thrill of downshifting, you can always sign up for a track day, or take your kids to K1 Speed on a Saturday afternoon.
But this Google car heralds something potentially much more exciting: The end of near-mandatory car ownership.
Having a car is a huge, expensive hassle that daily puts you in contact with some of the worst aspects of humanity. You find yourself in the thrall of intractable government bureaucracies, at the mercurial whims of law enforcement, and at the mercy of insurance companies. You're constantly at risk of getting ripped off by untrustworthy mechanics. The average driver spends hundreds of dollars a month on gas, the definition of a limited, wasteful commodity. A survey just came out that said that accidents cost us nearly $900 billion a year, and that's just money. There are still nearly 35,000 deaths every year on the road.
When you're in a car, you have to deal with other drivers, who are distracted, or tired, or incompetent, or, worst of all, intoxicated. You play a huge game of chicken every day, strapping your kids into a 4,500-pound bomb on wheels to get them to soccer practice. It's a necessity for most people, but often a massively stressful one. Traffic is a major hassle that makes us all sick in the head. Is this something you really want to romanticize?
This Google car heralds something potentially much more exciting: The end of near-mandatory car ownership.
Instead, let's look at the world that Google posits: You don't own a car. Instead, you summon an autonomous vehicle when you need one. It arrives. You pay a small fee, punch in your destination, and it takes you there in a reasonable amount of time. You can do whatever you want during the process. Then the car goes away until you need one again. Beep boop beep boop. There are no added insurance costs. You don't have to pay for repairs, or haggle with a sleazy dealer over options packages, or set foot in the DMV ever again, or buy gas, or take a stupid online "comedy" driving school because you got caught going seven miles over the limit in a poorly marked one-block school zone, grumble grumble.
In his Car and Driver entry, Alterman says that in Google car land, "your life will become exponentially worse." But that doesn't sound worse to me. It sounds like heaven. As a friend of mine in Austin put it on Facebook: "One day, I will stumble drunkenly down the middle of 6th Street as self-driving cars quietly move around to avoid me. I eventually make it to my own self-driving car, and tell it 'Whataburger. Taquitos. Now,' right before I pass out in the couch in the back seat. I wake up the next day in my driveway with lukewarm taquitos waiting for me. The future is beautiful."
This magnificent cold-taquito evolution is happening. Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW all have driverless cars in the pipeline. Many high-end cars are already featuring beginning versions of the tech. Driving the Mercedes S-Class (above, upper left) barely takes any effort at all. At the first drive of the Hyundai Genesis (above, upper right) last month, I took my foot off the pedals, and even the steering wheel, for several minutes. It was great, but not enough. I wanted to drive even less.
The privately owned combustion-engine vehicle will eventually combust, and so will all the sleazy businesses and government agencies it supports. It can't happen soon enough.
I got a little pre-evolutionary taste of what that world might be like last fall, when I participated in the first drive of the BMW i3 (above, bottom) in Amsterdam. The car was compact, made totally from recycled materials, didn't burn a lick of gas and operated with a one-pedal drive that meant I had to use the brakes twice in about six hours. It also came equipped with a fully-integrated suite of smartphone apps that could tell me when traffic was getting too intense, advise me to pull into a parking spot where the car could be charged, and give me directions that would allow me to take public transportation or even, God forbid, walk instead.
The i3 is a car you have to own, and a premium one at that, so some of the usual hassles apply. But it gave me a partial glimpse of an in-vehicle world that was quiet, cozy, and simple, far beyond the noisy, cluttered, stupid, dangerous and depressing driving scenarios we face now. It was a hope for a more modern, less expensive and less polluted future.
Whether or not the Google car ends up becoming the world's dominant vehicle – the mammals munching on the dinosaur eggs – or a more traditional manufacturer takes over the reins, its time has come. We're due for a massive transformation of the way we get around. Cars are fine, but the car-industrial complex is not. The privately owned combustion-engine vehicle will eventually combust, and so will all the sleazy businesses and government agencies it supports. It can't happen soon enough.