It seems to me…
“The trouble with research is that it tells you what people were thinking about yesterday, not tomorrow. It’s like driving a car using a rearview mirror.” ~ Bernard Loomis.
Many versions of a story[i] have made the rounds on the Internet since around 1970 about a guy, an obvious Darwin Award nominee, who purchased a new motor home. After leaving the dealership and pulling out on the interstate, he put the vehicle on cruise control, got up, and went in back to make himself a sandwich. While of questionable veracity, the day is quickly approaching when this actually will be feasible.
While considerable progress has been made in recent years in the development of totally autonomous vehicles, they have not yet reached that point where they are capable of unassisted driving. At least not yet at an affordable cost but it is obvious that we are not that distant from when it will be feasible for most vehicles to operate independent of driver control.
In fact, there are driverless cars on our roads today. California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida recently legalized autonomous vehicles.
There are several routes that can be taken to develop this capability. Most vehicle manufacturers seem to be taking a somewhat slower incremental approach concentrating on assisted driving that takes the best technology that can be installed in a car at reasonable costs and matches it with the most intelligent resource currently available in the vehicle: a driver[ii].
Most of these same manufacturers also are investing in research in the development of unassisted cars, vehicles designed and built to be smarter and more capable on their own – and able to operate without someone behind the wheel.
While research has been conducted on autonomous vehicles for quite a few years, it became considerably more serious with the announcement of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a prize competition for American driverless vehicles funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the most prominent research organization of the U.S. Department of Defense, whose ultimate goal is to allow one-third of ground military forces to operate autonomously by 2015[iii].
Three “challenges” were held in 2004, 2005, and 2007. The initial event in 2004 challenged teams to design and race driverless cars over a 240-kilometer (149-mile) course in the Mojave Desert but none of the vehicles were able to complete the course.
The following year, 2005, demonstrating the rapid improvement in technology, four vehicles completed the course within the 10 hour limit.
The 2007 event, known as the “Urban Challenge”, course involved a 96 km (60 miles) urban area course in Victorville, CA, to be completed in less than 6 hours where vehicles were required to obey all traffic regulations while negotiating with other traffic and obstacles and merging into traffic. Six teams successfully completed the course.
The pace at which the technology has reached the threshold of functionality and commercialization is astonishing. What is currently delaying commercial availability is not the technology, but economic, legal, and major social challenges.
The technology has the potential to transform urban centers, reduce the amount of land given over to parking areas, and cut down on accidents. While collision death toll has fallen over the last two decades, it remains excessively high when humans are behind the wheel (34,767 U.S. fatalities in 2012[iv])
Cars from Nissan, Ford, and BMW already have parking assist functions that require just a little help from drivers to perfectly slide into a space. Last year, Nissan showed a prototype car that can find itself a space and park — without a driver even being inside. After delivering its passenger(s), an autonomous vehicle could park off-site either outside high density areas or return home until needed.
Among the eventual goals are fully automated freeways where vehicles would travel in long lines under computer control. Traveling more closely than now would reduce congestion and require less fuel. Drivers would be able to read, work, or just relax while their vehicle transported them to their destination.
Unfortunately, even a single vehicle being driven by a driver rather than a computer potentially could negate these advantages probably necessitating lane restrictions. It is entirely probable that vehicles under human control could be prohibited from dedicated lanes or even city cores (similar to the London Congestion Charge Zone) where only autonomous vehicles are allowed inside the defined zone. The precedence for lane dedication already is established for high occupancy or high efficiency vehicles (Diamond Lanes).
Very little thought has been given to the broader societal and economy implications of driverless vehicles. For example, freight hauling companies would shift to an autonomous fleet as soon as it is feasible resulting in employment reductions.
Many impact studies predict decreases in vehicle ownership and expanded utilization of fleet operated vehicles reducing ridership on buses, taxis, or similar transportation but people prefer personal vehicles and are reluctant to use other forms of transportation even when convenient, efficient, and affordable. Transition from personal vehicle dependence has largely been rejected in the past so any rapid change from single-passenger occupancy is questionable. High density corridors ensures the continuing need for light rail systems but lower-ridership peripheral routes might experience reduced viability.
Vehicle insurance providers will have to transition from current driver liability, as a driver no longer would be in control of the vehicle’s operation, to responsibility by the vehicle manufacturer.
Autonomous vehicles could provide mobility for the physically restricted – the blind, infirm, young, elderly, and others with limited transportation options.
Many studies suggest that these vehicles could be generally available within five years. Billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects are being planned or built at the moment, designed to function for 20, 30, 40 years or more. These projects are being planned based on current technology necessitating extensive future costly changes and modifications. As always, the future is very difficult to predict.
In all probability, autonomous vehicles are only the beginning of what will become a paradigm shift as increasingly intelligent automata and robotics lead to the emergence of many kinds of new services, most of which we are unable to anticipate or even imagine today.
That’s what I think, what about you?
[ii] King, Rachel. Aspen Ideas Festival: Toyota VP outlines steps needed for ‘automated’ driving, http://www.zdnet.com/aspen-ideas-festival-toyota-vp-outlines-steps-needed-for-automated-driving-7000017479/, 2013 July 2.
[iii] DARPA Grand Challenge, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA_Grand_Challenge.
[iv] List of motor vehicle deaths in U.S. by year, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year.