The Jetson’s envisioned flying cars in our future, but never self-driving cars. Until the past few years, few people thought that driver-less (autonomous) cars were even possible. But they are not only becoming reality, they will probably end up eliminating most truck, bus, and taxi driving jobs within the next generation. On the bright side, they will probably also save tens of thousands of lives each year and enable people who cannot drive to get around more easily. But these cars will initially have some drawbacks.
First of all, current self-driving cars drive like your grandmother. You know, slowly, cautiously, and no faster than the speed limit. Obviously, they have to be programmed that way to be careful around crazy human drivers and because no manufacturer will want the liability of a risk-taking car. No politician will dare to allow self-driving cars that speed. But I guarantee you, there will be a market for that. I don’t want to drive a grandmother-mobile. I want my car to be a bitch! Maybe KITT from the Knight Rider, or an awesome Batmobile.
Think about it. Most people drive above the speed limit. They change lanes to get an advantage over other drivers. They sometimes take risks to get somewhere faster. I’m not saying that’s all good. I’m just saying that it is reality, and nobody is going to voluntarily sit in a slow car that breaks for every jackass who wants to merge into your lane and cut you off. There is nothing more frustrating for me than getting stuck driving behind a cautious, slow-ass driver. But until all the cars on the road are driver-less, they will have to be programmed to defer to human drivers and obey a low speed limit.
We already have hacks for just about every type of electronic device out there, so why not for car software? You know that some hacker will figure out a way to get his driver-less car to go above the speed limit. He might even program it to dominate other driver-less or regular cars.
Let’s say the typical driving software will always yield to other cars that have the legal right of way. Say you want to merge into another lane, but there is a car slightly behind you by less than the legal following distance in the other lane. A driver-less car would not cut in front. It would also yield to a naughty human driver who improperly cuts in front of you. A self-driving car software developer would know that it would be possible to manipulate other driver-less cars by breaking the rules and forcing them to yield to you. In other words, you could simulate aggressive human driving behavior.
Now that regular cars have features that automatically brake when they detect another car, a properly hacked self-driving car will even be able to intimidate human-driven cars. It’s sensors may even be able to identify the make and model of other cars around it and determine how susceptible they are to manipulation. I’d pay good money for that! If I can’t get it, I at least need a steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake so I can take over from the machine when I get really frustrated. Sorry, but there is no way I’m buying a car that has no steering wheel. The self-driving feature has to be optional.
In a world with only driver-less cars, this would be entirely unnecessary. But in a world that is still full of human-driven cars, it would be entirely desirable to some. And anything that somebody finds desirable is probably going to happen whether other people like it or not.
The better, and more socially acceptable, solution is to get rid of human drivers entirely. On a road with only driver-less cars, the machines would be able to go much faster, have narrower lanes, use less space between them, and be far more efficient overall. Every driver-less car would be able to watch and communicate with each other and have a standard protocol for yielding, merging, and performing other activities that humans get in a big fuss over, thereby causing accidents and massive traffic jams. So, how can we get driver-less cars on the road more quickly without the distraction of human drivers?
First, we could build special lanes just for self-driving cars, including cars driven by humans with an optional self-driving mode, instead of carpool or bus lanes. We could even build entirely new highway lanes instead of wasting our money on light rail projects, which generally cost about 50 times as much as bus service and serve fewer customers at a huge expense to taxpayers. Politicians love the idea of Light Rail because it is a great way to spend taxpayer money and get a lot of publicity for building public infrastructure that sounds great, even if it isn’t. You thought the bridge to nowhere was a good use of our taxes? How about an overpriced rail system that will soon be obsolete and unused?
But, you say you won’t be able to afford a self-driving car? You probably don’t need to. New services like Zipcar and Uber, among others, are probably salivating at the idea of making them available to you any time you need one at a reasonable cost. Just call a car service using your app and it will pick you up and drive you anywhere you want to go. For the cost of a wasteful Light Rail project, we could probably have self-driving cars with their own highway lanes available anytime you need one. Bye, bye bus, taxi, and rail services. The average bus isn’t even much more efficient than the average car. Once entrepreneurs start making small self-driving electric cars for use on demand, I’m pretty sure the cost-efficiency case for buses will disappear entirely, not to mention the fact that cars are so much more convenient.
One more thing. Car collisions with deer on the roadway kill about 200 people a year in the US and over a billion dollars in damage. How are self-driving cars going to deal with this? I suspect they will have an advantage if they use sensors to detect the deer plus sound and light emitters to scare them off. But to really minimize the threat, we could deploy infrared sensors along the most risky roads to detect the presence of animals, not to mention humans, and broadcast warnings to automated car systems in the area. Even human-driven cars could benefit from the use of animal sensor warning systems and emitters to scare them off.
A new world is approaching in the world of transportation. It is green and automated. But that still doesn’t mean we won’t want our bitchin’ hot cars! Forget the pokey Prius with its fuel economy. What people really want is the performance of a Tesla. Combine that with autonomous features and we will eventually achieve driving nirvana.