Like smartphones, the emerging technology will move the needle in unexpected ways.
The first iPhone (which spawned the smartphone industry) lacked GPS, a video camera and, most importantly, third-party apps. Its appeal to early adapters was the ability to have an iPod, cell phone, and a way to check email in a single pocket-sized device.
Today it’s everything from a navigation tool to a gaming platform to a device that can shoot and edit 4K videos. In 2007, who would have expected it to transform our lives in nearly every way?
With that in mind, think about autonomous cars that are looming on the horizon. There are the well-known benefits — providing mobility for those who can’t or won’t drive, the ability to work (or nap) during commuting, a blizzard of safety improvements including drastically reducing drunk-driving risks, and even shuttling one kid to soccer practice while waiting with the other at the doctor’s office.
Like the first iPhone, chances are driverless cars will provide all sorts of unanticipated possibilities. Let’s imagine a few.
The rollout will be slow and cautious until systems and infrastructure become sophisticated enough to take over completely. In the transition era, one feature might be “driver’s ed mode,” grading how well newbies stay within lanes, whether they come to a complete stop, and how well laws are followed. Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s driverless car program, has pointed out its software doesn’t just track pedestrians and cyclists, it predicts where they are headed. Interactive systems that help new drivers understand these patterns would offer invaluable training until cars become fully autonomous.
For the most part, there’s a belief that companies, municipalities and the military will adapt the expensive technology before individuals. Instead of your renting a U-Haul moving van, the company would send a loadable truck, possibly with one of their U-Box pods, to your address to be filled by you and your friends (you bought good pizza, right?) It could then immediately head to your swanky new digs to be unloaded or amble to a facility where the pod would be stored to await further delivery instructions.
City buses without humans behind the wheel will have more room for passengers. EMTs will be able to use their skills to save lives instead of weaving an ambulance through traffic on the way to the hospital. Firefighters could immediately begin rescue efforts while the truck positions itself at the scene. New types of all-terrain rescue vehicles could venture into hazardous conditions to rescue people trapped by fire, water or snow. That is, of course, after sensor-laden drones locate them.
Contrary to conventional thinking, performance cars can benefit from autonomous tech. I had the chance to talk with Detlev von Platen, executive board member for sales and marketing at Porsche.
“We at Porsche are about the driving experience, customers buy our vehicles for that reason,” he says, then adds, “Imagine taking an autonomous Porsche to a racetrack and experiencing the throttle, braking and steering inputs of a professional driver on the course. That could be programmed into the car so the driver could learn from a professional.”
Tobias Moers, who heads up Mercedes-Benz’s high performance AMG unit, says that its cars will always have a steering wheel. “For those wanting a hot lap on Germany’s Nürburgring, the system could provide the thrill.”
Afterwards, he says, schooled drivers could try it themselves. After a hard day of pushing the limits, the vehicle could navigate itself back to the hotel room, a welcome luxury on unfamiliar roads. In that regard, travel in foreign countries will become easier.
Some believe the future of transportation will be a service model rather than ownership. Those living in dense urban areas without parking spots will simply schedule a vehicle, perhaps on a daily basis for commuting. But, those that own their cars (advantageous during high-demand periods like holidays) might turn it into a workhorse. Once you’re at work, it could become an autonomous Uber driver and earn its keep. At the very least, sending it to a remote lot could reduce parking charges, or simply point it home until needed. That brings up all sorts of issues about wasting energy and reducing the number of vehicles on the road.
Looking far into the future, the ability of all cars to talk to each other may eliminate the need for stoplights and freeway metering. And while there’s talk that autonomous vehicles, with their ability to follow each other very closely, will help eliminate congestion on our roadways, I’m willing to wager that increased urban density that will bring more self-driving vehicles to cities will continue to create traffic jam conditions. We may not get to our destinations significantly faster, but at least we’ll be able to use our smartphones safely on the way.