The Advent of Self-Driving Cars
Self-driving cars are about to become a reality, and several “driver-assist” features have already been incorporated. Will they ever allow full “auto-pilot”, or will the driver always need to maintain oversight for liability reasons?
Slowly, self-driving cars are being implemented, mostly in the form of “advanced driver assistance systems”, many of which are featured on new cars (adaptive cruise-control, collision avoidance, lane departure warning, pedestrian crash avoidance, and automatic lane centering among them). It is a hop, skip, and a jump from these devices to full computer control of your car, but it is not clear whether automakers are ready to take responsibilities away from drivers for these devices. Since self-driving cars have the potential to drive much better than humans, they may make roadway and parking lot redesign possible in the name of improving safety and lowering congestion. Let us consider this scenario….
Walter Motey zips along at 90 mph en route to the SF Opera while pouring himself and his lovely guest a glass of Dom Perignon. Slyly, he uses his watch phone to photo grey the auto glass and activate the soft candlelight and Montovani mood-music, in what is essentially his bachelor pad, replete with fully reclining seats and a wet-bar. The only sound made by the sleek electric vehicle is the soft “ta-pocketa, ta-pockets, ta-pocketa” of some of the older vehicles in the adjacent 12’ “antique lanes” that are allowed for older gas vehicles at heavily taxed rates. “Poor devils” Motey thinks to himself, and to think you Neanderthals could have been zipping along at higher speeds, worry-free at lower prices had you only submitted to the new 60” wide, 96” long, 1000 lb vehicle with bumper-car front/side crashworthiness spec, which allows travel in the new 8’ lanes with in-lane charging and full driver-assist, while allowing higher speeds due to lower front and side clearances, which have also made traffic congestion nearly obsolete. As Motey activates the drop-down hors-d’ouvres for his enchanted guest, now giggling as Motey activates the “advanced-date-voice-system” (ADVS), which suggests some clever one-liners and sweet-nothings. As his sleek, tiny, and sexy vehicle zips down Van Ness in its designated robo-lane, it soon effortlessly parks itself like a sardine in a stackable parking garage, a stone’s throw from the Opera House as Motey makes sure his Fastrak is read by the lot computer. At Will Call, he thinks it clever to impress his date by pretending for a moment to be James Bond by saying ‘Motey…Walter Mot…’” “Motor! Motorcycle! Watch out for that motorcycle!” Motey’s middle-aged wife screams as Walter Motey narrowly avoids a collision with one of those noisy lane-divider riding things. “You’ve been daydreaming again Walter! You act as though your lane-departure and collision-avoidance systems could see that coming and that technology isn’t yet available, you moron!” Walter Motey wipes his brown and bites his nails, not wanting to acknowledge his wife who is usually right about these things, while beginning to fancy that he may someday be flying his family car through the air like George Jetson…
Ok so we see from this Walter Motey allegory that self-driving cars may soon be here, relieving congestion and furthering the idea that we will be getting places in tiny living rooms. There are opportunities to redesign lanes and parking lots, since “headways” (distances between cars) can be lowered due to faster computer response. However, there are still a few “bugs” in the system as computers still have a hard time in bad weather or seeing some of what we see (such as color and motion subtleties) so for the moment, we cannot fall asleep at the wheel or push “autopilot” for fear the computer might screw up. I would think that driver assist would be great on the highway, but more problematic in city traffic, where pedestrians abound. Fair enough though, you would be in control and could more or less relax on the freeway (but not fall asleep) while using your driving instincts in city traffic as the computer stands by to make sure you don’t fail (ie run over somebody). Either way, it allows for some much greater efficiencies.
I don’t suppose this will all happen overnight, so as said in the Motey parable, traditional traffic may run aside computerized traffic for awhile (surely at greater cost, since they will need bigger lanes, move more slowly and produce more carbon). Computerized vehicles also have the potential to disengage if the driver is drunk (although if the car is fully-automated, who cares?) and provide other “to be determined” social services (such as giving an electric shock to one who makes unwanted advances?) Doubtless, there will be complaints about the “nanny state” such vehicles create, but in my Motey scenario one has the “choice” of eschewing the robo lane and being in the “freedom” lane, albeit at a slower pace and higher price.
Self-driving cars are in their infancy and many issues need to be worked out, yet driver-assisted cars are here and could practically mimic the self-driving car, if the driver took basic precautions. Either way, they have the potential to greatly reduce congestion and increase safety, if not produce the savoir-faire of a wool-gathering Walter Motey.
Like this article? Read more in Vern Scott’s new book “Civil (Engineering) Disobedience”, available on Amazon.com