How Will Autonomous Technology Change The Cars We Drive?


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.

Future Car

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 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.

Autonomous car

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.

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • evfan

    A great article to start the New Year!

    We are living in an amazing era with big transformations. Your phrase “We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in how we ..” can be used to describe several things that happened in the last 30 years. Think back before everybody had a PC or a smart phone, before the internet was widespread …

    • Steve Hanley

      Tis true. According to legend, on December 31, 1899, the head of the US Patent Office boldly announced “All that CAN be invented has now been invented.” Boy, was he ever wrong!

      Our kids and grandkids will snicker at how primitive what we view as cutting edge technology is from their perspective. It has been ever so since the pike replaced the broadsword.

      Interesting times.

  • O[b]ama

    Search “World Transportation Center” on Google Maps to see the geographic epicenter of America’s new driverless-car system.

    • evfan

      I get Manhattan. I do not understand why that is ” the geographic epicenter of America’s new driverless-car system”?

      • O[b]ama

        New York City’s Ground Zero, the former World Trade Center (WTC), is becoming the World Transportation Center (WTC).

        A new infrastructure for self-driving cars will emanate outward from Ground Zero in Manhattan.

  • Joe Viocoe

    “Google has just signed a partnership with Ford to produce self driving cars”

    Still linking that rumor as fact?

    • Steve Hanley

      The story has been widely reported by reputable sources. The official announcement is supposed to take place 4 days from now at the CES.

      If that doesn’t happen, we will amend our reporting as appropriate.

      • Joe Viocoe

        All sources are from Yahoo Autos, who did not reveal the anonymous source.
        You cannot call anonymous sources, reputable.

        Just because reputable articles reference the Yahoo source, does not transfer credibility. And those reputable articles do make a point not to jump to conclusions as being verified. They make sure to let the reader know this is unconfirmed.
        It seems the farther down the line of playing ‘telephone’…. the rumors spread as fact.

        Just think, some people will source Gas2 articles as a “reputable” source. And if you choose wording that takes all of the ‘?’ out of the speculation… and report as fact…. it compiles the problem. It doesn’t take a lot of extra effort to include some qualifier words to ensure that the reader’s know that this hasn’t been confirmed yet.

        Thank you for correcting your reporting if it turns out to be false… but you cannot go back and correct every syndicated citation that uses your material. This is how the blogosphere gets cluttered with nonesense. It is far better to avoid jumping to the conclusions of unverified reports.

        • Steve Hanley

          Your concerns are appropriate, Joe. I have added an update to that story stating the Yahoo! Autos report is unconfirmed.

          As the old adage goes: “Better late than never, but better never late.”

          As part of my New Year’s resolutions, I will endeavor to be more discerning in my reportage during the coming year. Thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with me and the Gas 2 community.

          • Joe Viocoe

            Thanks Steve, I appreciate your attentiveness.

          • Joe Viocoe

            Hate to say I told you so…. but Ford did not announce anything about a partnership with Google at CES.
            I hope you didn’t write too many articles. That might be a pain to go back and change them all.

          • Steve Hanley

            No, I have been monitoring the situation and am aware that no formal announcement has been made….yet. Perhaps it never will be.

            Taking your advice, I have refrained from referring to this in subsequent articles. I also now refrain from using Yahoo! as an uncorroborated source. Thanks for keeping me from writing myself over a cliff. ; – )

  • Shiggity

    Complete city wide automated parking is where you’ll see all the gains.

    Finding a parking spot is where the majority of a city’s traffic comes from.

    San Francisco has one of the best automated parking systems atm. The city ‘knows’ at all times which spots are open / not open.