Are we going to say goodbye to driving?

The direction the car industry is steering toward seems crystal clear. Cars will be handled less and less by human drivers and more and more by software and sensors. What once lived only in a TV writer’s imagination, is now reality. Everyone (over the age of 40) remembers KITT - the souped up, artificially intelligent, self-aware car that starred in the 1980s TV show Knight Rider. The original KITT, a black 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, was every car lover’s dream back then, but could we soon have a KITT of our very own and finally be as cool as Michael Knight?


Do they exist?

While a self-aware car with a dry sense of humour may be further down the road, the often called self-driving, autonomous, or driverless vehicle is a reality. These are cars or trucks in which human drivers aren’t needed to operate the vehicle. Control and navigation is done by a combination of technologies to create and monitor a map of the environment around the car using things like lasers, radar, highly-sophisticated cameras, and sonar.

Fully autonomous vehicles are only in the prototype stage and are not legally allowed on the road, but partially autonomous cars are becoming common. Autonomous capabilities like stability control, alarms, and anti-lock brakes have been around for years, but new ways to take driving out of human hands are out there and soon will be available in virtually every new vehicle rolling off the assembly line. Things like blind-spot detection and automatic braking systems to help avoid collisions, vibrating seats when a car detects it’s too close to an object, and adaptive cruise control that keeps a safe distance from the car ahead, will make for more relaxed passengers and happier marriages. Self-parking cars will eliminate the embarrassing, albeit character-building, 20-minute struggle to parallel park that made some of us fail our driving tests. Twice.

Pros and cons.

On the pro side, first and foremost, supporters say self-driving cars will save lives. It’s no secret that drivers are dangerously distracted by the business and shiny objects of modern life. According to the RCMP, drivers who use hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to cause injury. While mobile phones are a particular concern, driver distraction in general is a factor in 4 million motor vehicle crashes in North American per year, according to the Canadian Automobile Association. And that doesn’t even touch the impaired, tired, foolhardy, aggressive, inexperienced, and just plain bad drivers causing all kinds of carnage on the road.

With self-driving cars, the talking, texting, mascara-applying, bagel-eating, coffee-drinking, dancing-when-their-jam-comes-on-the-radio driver will no longer be a danger. All of these things could be done safely with self-driving cars, because the human brain won’t need to focus on the inconvenient act of driving – the car will take care of everything. The fully-autonomous vehicles of the future may not even have steering wheels or pedals. It will be like riding in your very own train car – without all the extra bodies.

In addition, self-driving technology could make traffic flow in cities much more efficient because cars themselves will be able to prevent and avoid traffic jams. That cuts down on the time wasted in congestion and the pollution that results. Self-driving cars could also provide more independence for those unable to drive, such as the elderly, blind, or disabled.

On the con side, skeptics cite cybersecurity as the major concern. Hackers accessing a vehicle’s software and controlling its operation could be a constant threat. Road systems and infrastructure would need major costly overhauls and the insurance and legal systems will struggle to keep up with who is responsible for problems and crashes. The technology is moving faster than questions can be answered.

As well, the widespread use of autonomous vehicles could leave people like taxi drivers and long-haul truckers, without jobs. In an interview with The Canadian Press, an auto executive was asked what might happen to millions of truck drivers when their jobs became obsolete. The executive replied that it’s a hard job and they will find something better. (Interesting answer. I think I have some follow-up questions.)

And finally, what about those who simply love to drive? Those who like nothing more than the feel of the driver’s seat and the revving of an engine. What do they do when driving is handed over to software? Driving and cars used to be part of our identity and technology used to improve the driving experience. Does autonomy represent the peak of that or does it fundamentally change “driving” to simple passive transport?

The disruption to our car-centred world will be enormous.

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The race is on.

Like a technological snowball hurtling down a hill, major automakers including Tesla, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Audi, Toyota, and Ford are all racing to make fully autonomous vehicles a legal reality. Technologies are so rapidly being developed that most car manufacturers have projected rolling out self-driving cars in or around 2020. Researchers and technology companies like Google and Apple are getting in on the action too, with Uber teaming up with Volvo and Lyft with GM.

Whether you're a supporter or a skeptic, with all of the major automakers competing to produce self-driving cars, their development is most likely an unstoppable force. It’s only a matter of time before that common phrase, shouted by moms and dads since cars were invented, will go from, “You kids quiet down or I’m pulling this car over!” to “You kids quiet down or I’m programming this autonomous vehicle to pull over when it senses it is safe to do so!”


In Part 2 we will explore future implications. Is the development of autonomous vehicles moving faster than questions can be answered? What will a licence mean? Could a kid have a licence? What about the liability in an accident with another car or a tree? What about ethical dilemmas: How does an autonomous car decide between a dog and a baby? What about two babies versus a elderly person with a walker? Taking the human element out of driving comes with a whole host of unanswered questions and legal dilemmas. Stay tuned.

~Christine MacLeod