Car – Take Me To Work

March 5, 2012 1 Comment

One science and technology topic that seems to be flying well under the radar, something that is intimately tied to a cleaner energy future and electric vehicles, is that of self-driving cars. I am amazed that the cars are here and hardly anyone is talking about it. “Auto-pilot cars” (or other forms of transportation) were a staple of science fiction a few decades ago. I figured when the cars finally arrived, there would be a lot of buzz. Granted, the Darpa Grand Challenge did generate a lot of press a few years ago, but what is going on now is even more spectacular.

As I have profiled here in the blog, self-driving cars have logged thousands of miles on roadways around the world. They have operated flawlessly on crowded city streets as well as fast-moving freeways. One state (Nevada) has already legalized self-driving cars and another is drawing up some regulations. They are technically ready for the mass market, but probably not “commercial-ready”. The computer controls need to be better designed into the interior of these cars and they are probably quite expensive. Other than the finishing design touches, the main barriers to acceptance and success are social and legal. Here is a good article describing some of the legal implications.

One of Google's Robo Cars

I am sure there are quite a few people that will balk at the idea of having a computer drive a car down the highway. I am not too worried. I am much more worried about the human drivers that until recently, were primarily responsible for 40,000 deaths a year on U.S. highways. I would feel much safer on a highway with computer-driven cars instead of people driving cars while texting, while drunk, while screaming at their kids, while eating a messy sandwich, while talking on the phone, while applying make-up, while shaving, while reading, while playing air-guitar, while reading the paper, while dozing off, while….you get the picture. Driving a car on U.S. roadways is (or at least used to be as recent as a couple years ago) the number one cause of accidental death for adults. Rarely is a fatal accident caused by mechanical failure. Here is a good article detailing some of the advantages of “robo-cars”.

Some people are also worried that computer-driven cars cannot handle all of the contingencies that occur on a roadway, but the truth is that the vast majority of our driving is not too challenging. During my own drive to work and back I only make one left hand turn at an intersection without a stoplight. I am certain a computer could make the trip quite easily. In addition, it has been proposed that intersections could be managed by a computer as well so that self-driving cars could be coordinated and not clog things up. Many luxury cars already have computer-assisted driving built into them so going all the way to fully self-driving cars is not that big of a step.

But what about the thrill of driving? I know there are a lot of people who enjoy the road and it is often said that Americans have a “love affair” with their cars. Even though computers are likely much better drivers, I wouldn’t want to outlaw “driving for pleasure” or driving older model vehicles for show. However, if self-driving cars do become mainstream in a few years, I suspect that if you drive your own vehicle, you will probably have to pay a lot higher insurance.

The best part about self-driving Internet connected cars is that pollution and traffic congestion could be reduced. Smart cars communicating with each other could achieve optimum speed and spacing on the freeway and find less crowded routes to travel on the fly. Of course, having Internet connected cars opens the possibility of abuse by government authorities and that will have to be addressed with more openness and transparency.

The other problem that hasn’t been mentioned much is potential hacking. A car that transmits information over the Internet and/or over a cell network will be open to malicious hacking. There would have to be tight security protocols for the cars and an easy way for drivers to take over the controls if the computer went haywire. A more prosaic for of “hacking” that could be a problem is pranking. If some pranksters see an automated car on the road, they could mess with its driving by swerving, braking, and driving erratically near and around it.

Overall, these seem like minor hurdles to overcome. I can’t wait for the day when I can hop in my car and say “take me to work” or begin a long trip by saying “take me to St Louis”. That way I will have more time to relax or do other fun things while in the car. What do you think? Do you like the idea of self-driving cars or does it freak you out?

Infiniti's Electric Super-Car

In other EV news, Infiniti has announced a luxury electric vehicle and Chevy Volt production is shutting down (temporarily?) because of the predictable lack of demand. Not only is the Volt too costly, it doesn’t have exotic appeal for early-adopters. There are probably a few people still mad about the GM bailout as well. The Volt is a nice EV with good engineering, but it will have a tough time making it. Thankfully, there are other car companies with EV products and small innovators with passion that can fill the void.

Have a good Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.

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