Hands-off journey to the future
AUSTRALIAN COLUMNIST MIKE STEVENS IS READY TO KICK BACK AND BE DRIVEN AROUND
Sit back and relax as the car of the future does all the work and dodges the dangers on the road.
Here’s a perspective on the autonomous car that you might not have heard before: we fiercely independent motorists are all horse riders, shaking our fists at the plague of stinky, dangerous machines coming to take over the world.
Go back a ways; that’s us, looking on in anger and fear and closely guarded confusion as a new mode of transport and a new group of enthusiasts steal our territory.
We might think we’re the descendants of those revheads revelling in a brave new world of motorisation, but, no, we’re the grumpy fist-shaking horsemen.
Some of us worry that a transition to driverless cars will mean losing access to our favourite pastime (it mostly will), while others see driverless cars as yet another dumbing down of society.
I can sympathise with that first group. I love driving.
But I don’t love the days I lose to gridlock, and I don’t love that no matter how switched-on my road skills are, there remains that constant risk of being bulldozed by a growing horde of ignorant, fatigued, drunk, aggressive and distracted drivers.
Those few minutes each day where I’m able to extract some pleasure from the experience? I’d happily trade those for the safety and convenience of autonomous cars. In a heartbeat.
I could swap gridlock for public transport, or a 60km round trip on the pushbike, but let’s be real here: choosing between those is like deciding whether I’d prefer to step in my dog’s regurgitated breakfast or in some other canine product.
As for those concerned that a move to autonomous cars will diminish the human experience once more; what do you think cars did to horse riding for most people?
Imagine the comments section of the HorseAdvice website in the early 1900s: “Would you ever buy one of those new-fangled cars?”
“I dunno, people might not bother with horses anymore…”
But you are still allowed to ride horses. Sure, there are restrictions, but go out to the country and you can ride – or race – a horse to your heart’s content.
That’s where I see cars going: human-driven examples will be kept off our driverless roads, but take a robocab out to a purpose-built centre and you’ll be welcome to tear up the race track, or simply cruise around a fake town. (I propose we fence off Tasmania and rename it Motormania.)
Something must be done. The world’s population is growing, infrastructure is struggling to keep up, and travel times are getting longer and more stressful.
If we’re not going to solve this with automated cars, at least in part, then what’s the solution? Do we simply make it harder to gain a driver’s licence, ensuring that every road user is a properly responsible component of a smoothly flowing system?
As more and more people join the daily commute, autonomous cars just make sense.
Today, humans can’t even negotiate a merging lane at the lights, let alone maintain reasonable speeds on the freeway without slowing to stare at roadside incidents or panicking as a slight bend approaches.
In the driverless future, intelligently networked vehicles will bring an end to gridlock, and the conventional infrastructure and speed limits we’re used to will disappear.
Traffic lights at intersections will fade away as the computers in our vehicles communicate at hyperspeed to negotiate crossings and turns, quickly and efficiently, without ever stopping.
We’ll play Candy Crush the entire time. Well, you might. I’ll catch up on the years of missed television. Maybe my car will even serve me coffee, I don’t know.
There are plenty of questions, of course.
Will we own cars, or will we simply hail a robocab from a local garage? Probably a mix of both.
How will we deal with the decades of intermingled driverless and human-driven cars that lie ahead? Cars are becoming increasingly autonomous even now, so the transition will be gradual and familiar.
Will a driverless car be programmed to sacrifice its sole occupant if it saves five others in an unlikely freak situation? Good luck finding a definitive answer, you’ll love the Google results.
Will insurance be cheaper if I have an autonomous car? In that period when proven driverless cars and human-driven cars exist side-by-side, yes, absolutely.
If driverless cars have less of an effect on infrastructure, and fewer people are injured on the road, will my licence and registration costs be cheaper? Now we’re getting into dreamland territory. There will still be infrastructure upkeep and improvements to be paid for, but governments will probably pocket any change.
Will we eventually be outright banned from driving on public roads? Maybe. Cars are big, heavy and fast. How safe can you be in an autonomous car if there are still humans out there to spear you? At some point, driverless cars will be so safe and affordable that there may be no sensible reason to continue appeasing a shrinking audience of motoring enthusiasts.
But, as Tesla founder Elon Musk said during a technology panel in March, any move to outlaw conventional driving will require comprehensive proof that autonomous technology is “not merely as safe as a person, but much safer”. It will also have to be affordable, reliable and as convenient as driving is today.
Given time, though, that evidence will come.
In the meantime, carmakers will have to keep working on that ol’ public perception problem.