At next week’s International CES in Las Vegas (where our own Kevin Gordon will be on-site), both Toyota and Audi will show their concepts for self-driving, or autonomous cars. Some states (Nevada, California, and Florida) have approved autonomous cars on public roads, and many observers see them as welcome, or necessary, or inevitable. But are you ready for them?
Autonomous cars have come a long way over the past few years. About eight years ago, in 2004, at DARPA’s first Grand Challenge in California’s Mojave desert, autonomous cars had to navigate a 150-mile route in order to claim a $1 million USD prize. The most successful vehicle in that year’s challenge traveled just 7.4 miles of the 150 mile target, or reaching less than five percent of its goal. To be fair, the Grand Challenge was off-road, which introduces a host of new challenges (but also removes others that a car driving in traffic, or on public roads, has to deal with).
Today, with large companies such as Google, Toyota, and Audi taking the place of universities in the autonomous-car forefront, not to mention much better off-the-shelf technology being available, it’s little surprise that many see self-driving cars as inevitable.
Surprisingly, I’m not quite sure how I feel about the notion of my car driving me to work, rather than the other way around. I think it would depend a lot on the circumstances of my commute, and whether any manual control is ever a possibility. A year and a half ago, I had a 50-mile roundtrip commute that was nearly all back roads. There were three passing zones during the trip, and let’s just say that I took full advantage of them whenever humanly possible. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d take a variant of the route that took me over some fun elevation changes, followed by some very sharp curves – a route that I affectionately call my “test track.” I actually enjoyed that drive quite a bit, and would not have been interested in having my car do the drive for me.
Now, however, I have a 48-mile roundtrip commute that is nearly all expressways. Traffic-filled expressways. My average speed has gone down quite a bit since I’ve been doing this commute. For this drive, a transportation appliance would probably be perfect. My Cadillac CTS gets terrible mileage on this trip thanks to the traffic (roughly 18 MPG) and there really is no compelling need for a sport sedan. Would I rather just sit back and let the car drive while I played Words With Friends? Honestly it doesn’t sound that bad to me.
My extended family lives within a two hour radius of our home, but that means reasonably-frequent Turnpike or highway trips to visit them. Don’t get me wrong – I like to drive, a lot. But would it be the worst thing in the world to have my car (or, in most cases, my wife’s minivan) handling all of the driving? Probably not. Theoretically I could take a nap, watch a movie, play a game with my kids, surf the Internet – whatever – while the van did the dirty work of driving.
Funny enough, my wife’s 2008 Sienna already does have a bit of self-driving in its adaptive cruise control. Its early-generation system (laser-operated) is disabled below about 25 MPH and becomes annoying on the expressway when you find yourself in the right lane keeping pace behind someone going 10-15 MPH slower than you were hoping to drive; with normal cruise control, you would have closed the gap then passed that person. The only place I use adaptive cruise control in our van is on a two-lane road with fairly heavy, but steady traffic where it does a nice job of managing the following distance. Speaking of following distances, to me, the Sienna’s adaptive cruise control is far too conservative in its following distances. The shortest setting still leaves enough of a gap for someone to slink between you and the car you’re following, and the longest setting may annoy the cars behind you.
Older-generation adaptive cruise control systems (such as ours) also do not like inclement weather. The Sienna’s is disabled when the wipers are activated in anything but the intermittent setting. It’s also disabled if there is excessive dirt on the laser transmitter/receiver lens tucked in the lower portion of the front bumper. Unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary to drive in foul weather. Last week, driving home through snow from Western Pennsylvania, our van’s front bumper was caked in a half-inch thick coating of slush. How would the sensors atop Google’s self-driving car – which work fine in the temperate climes of Nevada, California, and Florida – work in conditions like that?
We have had self-parking cars for several years, and the technology – though still not widely available – has basically hit the mainstream now that you can get it in a Ford Focus or Ford Escape. Aside from long trips and expressway travel, I’d imagine that parking-impaired drivers (like my wife – I love her to pieces, but she’s terrible at parking) could just press a button and the car will automatically find a space in a crowded lot and perfectly park the car, safely and more quickly than a human could.
Presumably, a highway full of self-driving cars (fortified with C2C or car-to-car communication) would remove many of the idiots who unfortunately reside behind the wheel, and would allow more uniform traffic flow and closer following distances, which might alleviate at least some congestion. Highway safety (and therefore fatalities) could also improve.
I’m fine with some implementations of autonomous cars, but I’m not even close to being ready to take the driver out of the car. To paraphrase from Charlton Heston, you’ll completely take away my steering wheel from my cold, dead hands. (Too bad there’s no second amendment protecting the right to steer for yourself!)