Gone are the days of the street directory and road map. People already rely so heavily on their GPS and SatNav systems in their phones or other devices, that amusing stories and images of “directions gone wrong” are becoming a category of viral Internet sensations that may one day rival Cat Videos.
So we’ve lost the skill to read a map and the need to plan a trip. We can simply jump in the car and let Siri or “Google Now” take over, leading us along blindly until “you have arrived at your destination“.
And the next step? Well it’s a lot closer than a lot of people think.
Close enough in fact, for Elon Musk, former PayPal entrepreneur, now CEO of Electric Car Manufacturer Tesla, and head of the commercial space exploration company SpaceX, to state that one day in our not too distant future, humans will outlaw driving (by humans!). Such are the advancements and amazing track record of driverless cars over the first part of this decade.
At first the concept seems fanciful, and besides, we’ve got about 3 months to perfect the flying car and the hover board right! But if you think about some of the advances of the past 20 years, which we now take for granted, such as Anti-lock Braking Systems, Traction and Stability Control and Engine Management – then extend those technologies a few more years, self driving cars are not a big stretch. By the mid-90s, with these technologies in their infancy, our cars were already better drivers than us.
Driverless cars are already a reality way beyond the experimental stage. Google’s “Chauffer system” uses a system called light detection and ranging (lidar) which works like radar and sonar, but more accurately, to map points in space using rotating laser beams. This takes more than a million measurements per second to form a three dimensional model that is accurate to the centimeter. It also includes regular radar, a camera and a GPS.
These cars are currently being driven in real world usage scenarios through several states in the US. In fact, in 6 years and over 2 million kilometres of testing, Google’s driverless car has seen just 11 minor accidents and one minor injury in real world autonomous driving and none of these were the fault of the driverless car. Billions of dollars have been spent in California, building proof of concept, experimental cities, with no manned vehicles allowed , and several US states and European countries are clambering to be at the forefront of development of this technology, attempting to make themselves the hub of such research and experimentation.
The list of advantages of a completely driverless society is long and there are more benefits than first meet the eye.
The obvious catalyst for much of the development so far has been road safety. The ability of these vehicles to travel safely at high speed is proven (at least in good conditions) and removing the human factor from driving, which accounts for 90% of all accidents and of course alcohol, 1 in 3 fatalities has a massive safety upside.
However this technology will be a disruptive and transforming as anything that has come before it. From paper and ink, to the printing press, to farming and agriculture advancements, telephone, the steam engine or TV and the Internet – even cars in their early 20th century form – automated transport will change the way we live.
Tightly integrated feedback loops between all cars with aggregated information networked to all vehicles which then make decisions for the greater good rather than one selfish driver will improve traffic flow and efficiency by 6 to 8 times. Greater cooperation leads to greater efficiency.
Gone from our lives will be drink driving, text driving, drowsy drivers and road rage.
Imagine too the environmental impact of the introduction of driverless cars. Less idling time, less circling for a car park, less grid lock, increased safety to far smaller, lighter cars with a much reduced carbon footprint, all burning less gas.
Transportation of children, the elderly or disabled will also change not only their lives, but the lives of their families and carers.
And as these benefits are realised the way we spend our time changes. We become more productive, but at the same time we have more family time, or more down time. It’s not unusual to spend an hour driving each day. Turn that hour into productive time, or family time, homework time for kids, or just time to watch the news or take a nap (or even a glass of wine!).
So how long will this transition take. Surely decades?! Even to replace the estimated 2 billion cars on the road worldwide right now, will take 20 years of manufacturing. As good as the technology is there is still work to be done on factors such as adverse weather conditions and unpredictable road surfaces. Plus all the infrastructure issues in cities and towns across the world. But we’re not trying to achieve this overnight. Work has begun with some US states and counties already incorporating automated transport and the related issues into legislation and city planning.
There is still a plethora of technical, financial, practical and moral issues to work through. Look how much life has changed in the past 50 years though and it’s hard to deny that a century from now, autonomous transportation won’t be a reality.
For us Gen X’s though, maybe our says in a retirement village somewhere will be highlighted by day long excursions to wherever we fancy, aboard the local “Google Bus”.