Self-driving cars are right around the corner

Imagine if driving to work were one of the most peaceful moments of your day: get in and plug in to your favourite radio stations from around the world, send a few emails, pour another coffee, and completely ignore the road and the traffic around you.

Sound far-fetched? Nevada, Florida and California have already approved the licensing of self-driving cars. They were also in the spotlight at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas from January 7th to 10th. Prototypes featured the newest in advanced 360° sensing capability, integrated satellite tracking, and snazzy designs. Even more attractive is the car’s capacity to wipe out what the World Health Organization claims will be the fifth leading mortality factor worldwide by 2030: bad driving.

Short term, removing the human input factor from vehicle manoeuvring would essentially wipe out accidents, drunk driving, under/over age limits and enable a large part of the population that can’t get around, to do so. And that’s just the beginning.

Self-driving cars in the future will be less influenced by safety considerations like driver visibility, strength of materials, bumpers, air bags, seat belts, and padding, the possible car designs will explode, and so will the choice of apps available to make our ride more pleasurable.

With the launch of Google’s self-driving car, the company released its vision of the future, described in an article published in Forbes magazine’s January, 2013 issue. Interconnectivity between cars would enable optimal synchronization, enabling less downtime for each car and fewer unnecessary trips, resulting in 90% fewer cars on the road. Just call in and the closest autonomous car will arrive in moments. Fuel consumption would plummet, less road surface would be needed for these more precise drivers, and we could repurpose one-third of parking space. Google also predicted that time wasted commuting would drop by 90%, as would the number of traffic accidents.

But where do we go from here….

We already rely on self-landing passenger aircrafts, driverless trains and minivans that essentially drive themselves using Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) to operate lane-keeping and warning systems, adaptive cruise control, back-up alerts, automatic braking and parking assistance. But the driverless car promises a whole new set of challenges and changes to the way we live. Will the automotive industry be able to migrate to the new technology profitably, without unloading unqualified workers?  What measures will be taken to manage the tracking data these smart fleets gather, and to protect personal privacy?

An article published in the Economist is asking the tough questions, “As driverless cars become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming — or at least appearing to assume — moral agency.”

The article offers points to consider: “First, laws are needed to determine whether the designer, the programmer, the manufacturer or the operator is at fault if a driverless car has an accident. Second, where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people. The sooner the questions… are answered, the easier it will be for mankind to enjoy the benefits that they will undoubtedly bring.”

Henry Blumenthal is the Vice-President of the Quebec Region for belairdirect and a man who knows that time is the best soothsayer. “There is a lot that needs to be sorted out, and these variables will guide the new approach to driver liability. It’s likely that with driverless cars, the liability will need to shift towards the manufacturers, public roads, to name a few. At some point the liability model will probably flip, giving drivers less responsibility while offering even more advantages. The question is more how we can ensure that this new dynamic can improve our everyday lives, society and the environment, and still provide jobs and profitability to industry. If we work to keep the safety and well-being of each individual at the focus of progress, we can make the right choices.”

And what about the driver experience?  Big automotive brands have been building our love for a premium driving experience for decades and have embellished our desire to pay more for quality engineering, smooth manoeuvrability and precision handling. Volkswagen’s “drivers wanted” and Mercedes’ “for people who love to drive” campaigns may fall short of their promise when they take the steering wheel out of the driver’s hand. After all, who doesn’t love to drive?


Photo credit: BMW

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