If you follow what’s happening in the auto industry, last year was all about the Tesla Model X and Ludicrous Mode. In 2016, the word you will hear most often will be “autonomous.” Ready or not, self driving cars are on the horizon. Tesla started the ball rolling in October, 2014, when it began installing the radar, camera, and sensors that make its Autopilot system possible. A year later, it downloaded the software that activated the system.
It’s more than blind spot detection and forward collision avoidance. It does what no other car on the road today can do. It changes lanes with a touch of the turn signal control. It steers the car, not just in a straight line but around curves as well. It can match its speed to that of a car in front of it, even coming to a halt and starting forward again as needed. It can parallel park itself. Some cars do some of those things, but no other car does all of them.
Elon Musk has issued a call for the world’s best software engineers to contact him personally to work on advanced autonomous driving programs, calling it a “super high priority.” He said in December that full Level 4 autonomous driving would be a reality within 2 years, even though it may take another year or two for regulators to catch up with the technology.
In four days, Faraday Future will unveil its new car, a vehicle it says will break all the rules and force us to rethink everything we know about automobiles. Google has just signed a partnership with Ford to produce self driving cars. All the world’s major manufacturers from Nissan to Mercedes are hard at work creating their own autonomous driving systems. Uber is involved. NextEV, Apple, and Atieva all say they will bring game changing, ground breaking, never seen anything like it cars to market in the next few years.
Why is this happening? Ostensibly, it’s because car makers want to eliminate car accidents. Every year, more than 30,000 Americans die as the result of collisions on the nation’s roads. If every car has autonomous driving capability, most if not all of those incidents can be avoided. Pedestrians and bicyclists will be no longer be injured after being struck by automobiles. But beyond that, it will be a powerful sales incentive, just the way cup holders and dual air bags were a generation ago. The public will demand these features and any manufacturer who doesn’t offer them will suffer.
Marshall McLuhan once observed, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” How will self driving systems change cars themselves? That’s a question Stanford’s Center for Design Research teamed up with Faurecia, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, to answer. Much of the research focused how to make people comfortable with the new technology while at the same time notifying them when intervention by a human driver is required. It found people often say the notification systems are irritating and complicated, so they just turn them off. Stanford’s researchers concluded that new ways to keep drivers alert and ready for a transfer of control are urgently needed.
Autonomous mobility will allow people to engage in unfamiliar activities while driving. Reading, working, socializing, sleeping, and eating will create a need for more flexible interiors that are also safe. For some, those activities can cause motion sickness while under way. The study identified several factors that contribute to motion sickness and Faurecia is now developing innovative ways to mitigate or avoid its symptoms.
Autonomous cars may have societal impacts as well, according to Jordan Perch at DMV.com. Fewer accidents could mean less business for auto body repair shops. Electric cars in general are more reliable that conventional cars. Auto parts suppliers and mechanics could see a decrease in business, as there will be fewer things to fix on future cars. Many industry analysts expect self driving cars to replace the need for privately owned vehicles, especially in our crowded cities. Fewer cars mean less need for parking. Less parking may lead to more open space for city dwellers to walk, ride bicycles, or engage in other healthful activities.
It is impossible to accurately predict how autonomous driving technology will alter our cars and our relationship with them, but change them it will. Electric cars don’t need bulky engines, which will allow designers to totally rethink what a car should look like both inside and out. In the 50s, car magazines used to feature illustrations showing families driving along automated roadways while the family was seated inside facing each other and playing Parcheesi. People thought such things were wildly improbable back then, but they may turn out to be as prophetic as Jules Verne’s imaginings about nuclear powered submarines.
We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in how we move from place to place and the machines that move us. Chances are the cars of 20 years from now will bear only a passing resemblance to the ones we drive today.