Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Driving Change

Technology is driving some big changes.

Especially when it comes to how we drive.  Or... don't drive.

And change, as friends and regular readers of this blog know, isn't something I'm fond of.  Well, more accurately, it depends on what's changing, and the degree to which it's changing, as to whether I'll embrace it or not.

When it comes to the rapid developments in driverless cars, however, the automobile revolution some experts predict is imminent presents a mixed bag for me.  I can appreciate some of its major benefits, but I'm not sure those benefits can outweigh its major drawbacks.

This is so big, I'm also not sure it will happen as quickly as some people want it to.

Removing Drivers From Driving Has Its Advantages

Back when I was in my teens and twenties, I used to enjoy driving.  As I've gotten older, however, and the driving population has gotten younger and far more reckless, I now consider driving more of a necessary evil than a fun way to spend some time getting from Point A to Point B.  To many Americans, driving is more of a waste of time than a pleasurable experience.  To the extent that so many of us think we can multi-task behind the wheel, it makes sense to try and take operating the motor vehicle in which you're traveling out of that list of tasks.  Few people multi-task well, especially when driving.

The theory behind driverless cars is that once the driver is removed from the driving equation, automobiles will automatically become an incredibly safe mode of transportation.  With the key word being "automatically."  Technology continues to provide amazing advancements in a robot's ability to sense motion, speed, the proximity of other objects, and infinite adjustments to calculations monitoring all of these variables in real time.  If the basic premise of "autopilot" that airplanes have featured for decades can now be extrapolated to the comparatively lowly car, what's stopping us, except more technology?

In their push to accelerate development of the necessary technology, Nevada has already licensed driverless cars, and California did so this week.  Google is testing some prototypes, along with other entrepreneurs hoping to get in on the ground floor of what a lot of people hope is the next big thing in transportation logistics.

After all, it won't be just passenger cars that can use driverless technology.  Cargo vans and even 18-wheelers could theoretically deploy the same technology and remove the oft-maligned profession of truck driver from the employment pool.  Not to mention our roadways.

It has been suggested that individual vehicle ownership itself could become anachronistic, as this new breed of cars becomes less an item for personal consumption, and more a generic mode of conveyance.  Parking lots might become extinct, as people simply dial up a transportation pod from a local fleet, use it to get wherever they need to go, and when they disembark from that transportation pod, it becomes available for the next call.

Kind of like a driverless cab.

Perhaps the very components of cars that make them so heavy and dependent on fossil fuels would become obsolete, since each transportation pod, programmed as they'll be on the street grid, won't need crumple zones, bumpers, and reinforced doors.  Traffic accidents will evaporate, claim experts, saving thousands of lives a year, and preventing thousands more injuries.

Remember, with driverless cars, computers do all of the driving, making split-second accommodations for varying traffic conditions that could otherwise cause a real person to make mistakes behind the wheel.

Yes, we'd probably still have traffic jams during rush hour, but they likely won't be as severe, since computers would be monitoring traffic flow, and there'd be no accidents to cause the traffic jams to begin with.  There would be no fender-benders, since computers would keep safe distances from other vehicles.  Nor would there be rubberneckers, gawking at accidents from the opposite side of a freeway, because first, there'd be no wrecks, and second, computers don't gawk at the misfortune of others.  Computers don't get drunk, tired, or distracted, either.  Neither do they speed.

See how so much of our modern life in post-industrial America would change with driverless cars?  Probably no more car ads, since the cars would all perform basically the same.  It would be more like a bunch of enclosed golf carts, differentiated only by whatever bling with which an individual owner - if there are people who'd still want to own their own transportation pod - would want to customize it.  Hey, back when horse and buggies were a conventional mode of transport, there was little customization, so maybe what was old could become new again.

Many cities around the world today have implemented bike-share programs, where people can rent bicycles in different parts of the city, and ride them to their destination, where another bike rental facility would receive the bicycle, and another person can rent it for wherever they need to go.  If parking lots don't become extinct, they'll likely become centralized rental depots for these transportation pods, kinda like today's car rental lots at airports.

Switching Gears

Yes, it all sounds rather weird, and would take some getting used to, but the savings in lives alone represents a hard benefit to downplay, doesn't it?

With all of the efficiencies and safety improvements we'll likely achieve with driverless cars, however, I see some significant drawbacks.

First, what will Government Motors (er, I mean - General Motors), Ford, and the other legacy car manufacturers have to say about this transportation transformation?  It's unlikely that driverless cars will be able to retain the aura and intrigue of what's become a conventional aspect of car ownership - each model's driveability.  If it doesn't matter how quickly a car can accelerate or stop, or maneuver out of a dangerous situation, who's going to buy one simply for the hood ornament or nameplate?

The loss of the driving aesthetic is potentially the greatest liability for driverless cars, since by their very description, the reason most customers are willing to pay what they are for the cars they buy has to do with how they drive.  If it doesn't matter how they drive, or what kind of safety features they have, then car manufacturers will pretty much be trying to push those glorified golf carts.  After all, you can bet the government isn't going to be crazy about allowing driverless cars to travel very fast - they'll be more interested in the environmental value of reduced carbon emissions.

And speaking of speed, certain intangible conveniences will be lost with driverless cars.  How many people speed to make up for lost time?  In a driverless car, you can only go as fast as the government will physically let your car be programmed, and only on prescribed roadways.  If you're running late, you likely won't have time to program off-the-cuff shortcuts into your transportation pod's GPS.

Also, remember that the speed at which your car travels is also the speed at which every occupant in the car is traveling.  Therefore, just because you won't be driving, your car's computer will still need to compensate for the reaction time necessary in case it encounters, say, a dog running out into the street.  If you're working on your laptop computer or drinking a cup of hot coffee, and not paying particular attention to the roadway being navigated by your car, you could suffer injuries inside its passenger compartment if your car is traveling too fast for emergency maneuvers.

What else is there?  How about money, since many government entities count on speeding tickets for much-needed revenue.  Road construction costs would remain the same, while undoubtedly, new technology would have to be purchased by transportation departments to help manage computerized traffic flow.  Even though each transportation pod wouldn't need expensive safety features, somebody's going to have to pay for all of the new driverless technology, and you can bet its developers will be looking for a hefty ROI as well.  If the passenger car looses its allure as a commodity, who - or what government agency - will purchase them?

Then there are emergency vehicles, such as fire engines, police cars, and ambulances, who will still need to navigate the same streets as driverless cars, but at greater speeds, and likely with less flexibility in terms of inputting GPS coordinates for the latest crisis environment.  What about inclement weather?  Will driverless cars need to crawl at a snail's pace just because they detect water, ice, or snow on the road surface, or will they be able to adjust for varying conditions being experienced not only by your vehicle, but other vehicles concurrently traversing different patches of slush, mud, and other hazards just another lane away from you?

Indeed, the scenarios and complications that need to be worked out before driverless cars become commonplace seem far more numerous than the benefits of driverless cars.  It seems quite unlikely that I'll be having to face this drastic transportation - and cultural - revolution in my lifetime.  Maybe that's why I can look at the benefits of driverless cars with such surprising sanguinity.  I can appreciate the same things their ardent advocates appreciate, but I don't need to worry about having to fret through the details of making the switch myself.

Some people sometimes say change can't come soon enough.  In this case, change seems to be coming soon enough to suit my tastes!

That's the kind of change I like.

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