It's never comforting to watch a driver fiddle with their smartphone, especially when they've got both hands off the wheel as they approach a busy intersection. But I found myself letting loose a sigh of relief as our sedan came to a smooth stop and waited for traffic to clear before proceeding on its way.
"Autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving."
What was both comforting – and disconcerting – was the fact that the driver had absolutely nothing to do with that simple, everyday act. Credit the prototype Nissan Leaf I was hitching a ride in during a recent demonstration of the Japanese maker's rapidly improving autonomous vehicle technology.
During a recent worldwide media event, Nissan 360, global marketing chief Andy Palmer issued a groundbreaking promise, declaring that the Japanese automaker "will be ready to bring a readily affordable, fully affordable autonomous vehicle to the market by 2020."
And Nissan isn't alone. Days later, Cadillac officials suggested they will be close behind with a self-driving vehicle of their own, while Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told his own audience at the Frankfurt Motor Show last week that, "For us, autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving."
Indeed, at a media drive of the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class over the summer, the mustachioed executive noted that the premium sedan's "sensor fusion" technologies come just a hair short of allowing the S-Class to drive on its own.
Like his colleagues, Zetsche is quick to point out the potential positives of autonomous vehicles. Proponents insist they will bring us a giant step closer to the goal of zero highway fatalities – 90 percent of which are generally blamed on driver error. They also point to fuel economy and emissions improvements.
And pilot programs suggest such technologies could greatly improve the utilization of crowded urban roadways without necessarily requiring the addition of new roads or lanes. Better yet, autonomous technology has moved past the stage where it would require expensive infrastructural investments. An early prototype system I drove on a stretch of San Diego freeway required magnetic sensors to be drilled into the roadway every several feet.
The technology has moved past the stage where it would require expensive infrastructural investments.
On paper, at least, it's not difficult to make a case for autonomous driving. In the real world, however, it's an entirely different matter.
There is, of course, the issue of reliability. Even the most fault-resistant aircraft autopilots have been known to go bad – one may have led to the downing of an Air France jet off the coast of South America a few years back. Of course, proponents could counter that even a failure every day of the year would be a big improvement over the countless driver errors that routinely take place. Indeed, consider that after the huge declines in vehicle fatalities over the last decade we still suffer nearly 100 deaths daily, on average.
The bigger concern there is whether our litigious legal system would bring the whole process to a halt. That's certainly a big concern with Nissan, product chief Palmer told me last month. The company has already begun lobbying lawmakers and regulators in the US and other parts of the world to take steps that would insulate manufacturers from frivolous claims. But Palmer acknowledged that there's a good chance the technology will wind up first appearing in less legally confrontational markets. Perhaps China?
The ultimate question, however, is how consumers will take to having their cars do the driving. There's a sizable chunk of the population who already view automobiles as little more than appliances. And the fact that more and more Millennials are postponing their driver's test – while even among Boomers, the number of carless households is fast rising, according to a study by CNW Marketing.
There's a good chance the technology will wind up first appearing in less legally confrontational markets.
Initially, carmakers like Nissan expect that autonomous vehicles will provide what might be called "almost hands-free driving," the person in the driver's seat required to be ready to take over control at a moment's notice in the event of a problem. There's that issue of reliability and, as former NASA rocket scientist and Nissan project leader Maarten Sierhuis cautioned, "We need to be able to drive any intersection anywhere and at any time to be fully autonomous," something that will take time to be certain they've gotten absolutely right.
Eventually, though, we're likely to be able to crawl, bleary-eyed into our cars – whether from too much drink or too little sleep – dictate a destination and settle in for some more shuteye or perhaps to catch up on reading.
But what about those who truly love driving? Will the thrill of slaloming through a tight S-turn become a distant memory, perhaps only experienced through video games and 3D movies? We can only hope not. For one thing, it will take decades and decades before every vehicle on the road would either be sold with – or retrofitted for – autonomous driving capabilities.
Will the thrill of slaloming through a tight S-turn become a distant memory?
Yet, perhaps even the biggest gearhead just might find times when hitting the "Autonomous" button makes sense. A decade ago, as the technology was just beginning to migrate from science fiction to science fact, I spent an evening with Bernd Pischetsrieder, then the Chairman of BMW, and an early advocate. But how, I asked, could the company that produces the self-styled "Ultimate Driving Machine" back the ultimate self-driving technology?
Simple, he explained. How many folks really enjoy being stuck on the A8 into Munich during the morning commute, or the Washington Beltway, the New Jersey Turnpike or LA's I-405? That's when you want to relax and get ready for work – or decompress on the way home. But on the weekend, the executive concluded, that's when you shift to manual and take control back.
We likely will soon learn if he's right.