We want self-driving cars and we want them now

opinion I love to drive. And yet, I cannot wait for self-driving cars. Question is: who will bring them to the masses first? And how soon?

When would you use a car's self-driving mode?

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I hear your comments right now:

  • "I will never let a computer drive me to work, it's not safe!"
  • "I'm a great driver, it's everyone else who is the problem."
  • "But I love my Ferrari/GTI/XR6 too much to ever let the car do the driving!"

Let's try to separate the mind from the machine, because trust me: mainstream adoption of automated cars will help improve the environment, use less fuel, reduce traffic to virtually zero, save billions of dollars per year and most importantly: save a lot of lives and limbs.

This is the kind of argument that we in the geek community inherently understand. Computers are better at certain things than humans are. They don't get competitive, stressed out, angry, confused or drunk — and they are perfectly capable of texting while driving, unlike us. They can negotiate merges, calculate stopping distance, maintain speed and react more quickly than we can. This isn't just about bad driving, although self-driving cars could solve that problem, too. It's about human inefficiency and safety.

Many auto manufacturers agree and are working hard to bring autonomous vehicles to the road in one form or another. GM predicts semi-autonomous cars to be available by the middle of the decade and fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. Audi announced its moves toward semi-autonomous drive mode at CES this year. BMW's i3 electric city car will include a traffic jam assistant that auto-navigates through traffic jams at slow speeds, and both BMW and Volkswagen say they're moving toward incremental roll-outs of semi-autonomous driver-assistance packages, with some features available now.

Great. I'm all for it. Let's get moving! Unfortunately, although the technology is getting closer, the world, it seems, is not.

Google's driver-less Toyota Prius

Google is working on driver-less cars, like this specially modified Toyota Prius.
(Credit: Google)

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show gathering in Las Vegas, I and a handful of my tech news colleagues attended a dinner with several Ford executives, including CEO Alan Mulally. It's clear that automated vehicles are on the collective mind of the tech world. Mulally was asked about self-driving cars several times, including by me.

But each time, even after enduring quite a long lecture from the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg on the topic of distracted driving, the affable Mulally said quite firmly that Ford would not be developing self-driving cars or even introducing self-driving mode in vehicles.

And at a recent symposium held to discuss the issue, concerns over regulations, liability, insurance and safety seemed to put the brakes on some of the enthusiasm for the concept. And sadly, O. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the US's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told the collected experts he thought the public "ought to be petrified" of the idea of cars driving themselves at high speeds.

So, fear and politics are likely to slow this convoy in the short term, but I suspect not for long. There's a growing drumbeat of support from the geek community for the obvious safety benefits of autonomous vehicles. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford University professor who guides Google's self-driving car project, has been increasingly outspoken about the safety benefits of autonomous cars and, obviously, the geek community is rallying: Wired magazine just made autonomous cars its cover story for January.

The revolution will come. But how quickly? As I mentioned, GM, BMW, Audi and others are pushing for a gradual roll-out of driving assistance technologies, with fully autonomous vehicles not due until 2020 or beyond. Digital Trends this week quotes a Volvo engineer who'd like to see a dramatic shift toward fully autonomous driving sooner rather than later. Ford is obviously sitting heavily on the opposite end of the spectrum, refusing to even have the conversation — at least publicly. And then, of course, we'll have to fight out the legal issues and the emotional ones.

Fear and love of driving are major emotional barriers for people in terms of accepting the idea of autonomous cars. So let me propose a dramatic shift that's not a move to a fully autonomous society: equip every car with autonomous mode by 2015. Give us all the ability to flip the car into autonomous driving mode as needed, to answer a call or text, to get a little work done during the morning commute or to negotiate bad traffic.

And here's a controversial idea: combine the technological advances with mandatory auto-mode zones or drive times, which will help push consumer and manufacturer adoption. The Sydney Harbour Bridge between 6am and 10am? Auto-mode only. Cars don't cause traffic, people driving cars cause traffic. Let computers handle the switch from six lanes to three. Forget congestion pricing: mandate auto mode in congested areas by 2015 and you'll definitely get the tech moving.

Autonomous mode in all vehicles doesn't have to remove all responsibility for driving and I don't want it to. Technology can simply take the burden off drivers when it will benefit them, those around them and the community at large. And for long, winding back-country roads, there's always manual mode. Let's be honest: that's the only time driving is fun anymore anyway.


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MaxIT posted a comment   

The technologies which support this idea of “auto-commuting” were available...um actually for nearly a decade now. The main reason why these aren't installed and adapted yet is the money. There is such a thing as global financial deficit, and while the governments are concentrating on pushing the (TAX) cash flow one-way (the wrong way, geesh its obvious!); the technologies which we invent today won't be used until they are outdated.

There is a way around that problem though, its very slow and painful. Its happening now, and its called "competition". The first car manufacturer will pilot this gizmo, and the flow will smash the walls of ego communism. Toyota’s Prius was the pioneer in hybrid technology, now even the Range Rovers are converting to hybrid :L. Setting up the radars and satellites for it will still be our shout. But the main job is to convince the governments these technologies are safe, they are ready and they work like peanut butter chocolate.

When it comes to trusting the computer, I'll say on thing. Pilots don't ask their passengers for permission to enable Auto Pilot. So don't wait. Act now!

On final note, hopefully these A.I. automobiles will start rolling out sooner than later, and we'll have less people in the hospitals from silly driving mistakes which humans are famous for, other benefits will be forgotten shortly.

Sincerely yours,
Max //^,^\\ Nice article by the way.

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