Baby, Won’t You Drive My Car?

So, would you buy a self-driving car?

How about a car that can park itself, stays in its lane, makes sure you stop safely, and makes sure you don’t accelerate too fast?

I’m not sure how a car that can do all that would not be a self-driving car, but apparently it isn’t.

It has been interesting to me to watch the developments as self-driving cars improve.  There was a race some years ago where cars were competing to drive a hundred miles without a driver.  I think one made it six hundred yards.  (Don’t quote me on that – I didn’t bother to do any research on that.)  The next thing we know, Google has self-driving cars licensed to operate in multiple states, and political positions have been staked out.

Google has been developing self-driving cars: you get in them, they take you where you want to go.  Other car companies have been incrementally developing computer assistance to human driven cars.  Honda, for example, had a recent TV ad showing off how all of its cars now come with automated parking assist.

The distinction made was that Google’s model had a car driving, a human around in case something went wrong, while other car companies had humans driving but with the car able to take over.

Neither version is even market-ready, and the distinction has nearly vanished.

Except, apparently in the world of marketing.  Check out this article.  Apparently people do want self-driving cars.  They just don’t want anyone to say it out loud.

By the way, I was particularly amused by Ford making a car that will stick to the speed limit, but they’re afraid to sell it in the US.  I recall a story – which I will present only as urban legend – that when Japanese cars were first sold here back in the 1960s, the speedometers only went up to the speed limit, and broke if you went any faster.  Allegedly the conformist, rule-following Japanese could not fathom an American’s need / desire to defy the speed limit.  Anyway, it has Ford worried.

So: car companies make a product that has, for four or five generations now, been sold based on freedom, excitement, and personal power.  How do you promote it when it’s become so built up with safety features that there is arguably little of any of those things?  If my car is just going to go the speed limit anyway, why should I buy something with 265 horsepower?

I was posing the question of self-driving cars a few years ago to a friend of mine.  He said no way – he’s written too much software to trust a car run by a computer.

Other people raise the insurance question: if a computer-driven car runs into something, who pays?  Google – recognizing the blocking issue represented there – stepped up to say it would be the responsible party for its cars.

For my part, I’m not very interested in the incremental features.  I already know how to parallel park, but I also do so little of it, I don’t need that to be something else that can break.  But everyone’s got their thing.  Mine is navigation: I trust that they’ll be able to build a car that won’t crash and kill me, but I just don’t trust that the car will actually get where I want to go using a route that won’t drive me insane.

Everyone has their own pet peeve.

So, while I’m not particularly interested in the bells and whistles, if you want to sell me a car that I can sleep in while it drives me, I’m interested.  Don’t sell me a car anymore: sell me transportation.  The experience of rail travel, without coach class.

Some people think that the destiny here is shared cars.  After all, if the car can drive on its own, it can go do something else after it drops you off at work.  It could deliver packages for Amazon or pizza for Domino’s.  And if all the cars are going to follow the same rules, there’s no point in getting a fancy sports car, as we’re all going to be in the same line of expressway traffic going 54 miles an hour.

I rather like the idea of shared cars.  I absolutely love the idea that we could revolutionize car design if a human doesn’t have to drive it.  Who needs a windshield?  Or a steering wheel?  Why do the seats all have to face forward?  Okay, there’s actually a decent reason for that last one (it’s called motion sickness), but think of what you could do with car design.

It’s possible that some science fiction movies have given us some insight there.  In “Total Recall” (the Arnold Schwarzenegger version), the cabs are automatically driven, but their layout is basically the same as if they had a driver.  With the addition of an annoying robot, however.  In “The Demolition Man”, the cars have exactly the same configuration, only you can’t actually do anything to influence how the car drives.  This turns out to be a plot point when Sylvester Stallone has to break into a museum to steal a car he can drive himself in order to chase the bad guys.

So, were the movie-makers lazy here, creating a fascinating, multi-level futuristic society, but not bothering to redesign the car?  Maybe, but I suspect something else.  It might just be a reluctance to accept something new.  More likely, we’ll want to believe we’re in control, even while we’re handing all the important work over to a computer.  Make it do everything, just give us a steering wheel so we can pretend we’re driving.  Just like a kiddie ride at an old amusement park: you’re in a car, it’s got a steering wheel, but it happens to be on tracks.  But it sure is fun to turn the steering wheel!


One Comment

  1. Interesting article on self-driving trucks and further questions of autonomous vehicles. Also, this article states that Google’s self-driving car activity has largely been on well-mapped routes around Google’s headquarters in California, and points out that it rarely rains there and never sees snow or ice. Maybe we’ll be driving our own cars for a while yet after all.



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