Why I'm Not Yet Thrilled About the Autonomous Car
Volvo and Cadillac, not Google, are beginning to show why avid drivers like me may want to turn on the robots.
I’m not excited about the autonomous car.
I’m excited to be writing about its emerging technology and the complex engineering, software and legal challenges raised by a such a feat. But my drab demeanor stems from a fear I developed as a little boy: In the future, I’ll never be able to drive.
I used to worry that by the time I received a license and had enough money, I’d be forced onto a road of pods and Jetsons-style bubble cars instead of hopping into a Mustang. That hasn’t happened. Today, we have more fun and lustworthy cars than ever, in all segments -- a true Golden Age of motoring not seen since the 1960s.
All ages come and go, though, and while we’re not shifting to flying "Fifth Element" taxicabs overnight, I still worry the industry is effectively on track to put itself out of business. When every car can be self-parked, self-aware and self-driven, what’s the point of a physical test drive? What’s the point of the “ultimate driving machine”? Why keep publishing magazines like Car and Driver? The differences between BMW and Toyota may become as trivial as comparing Amtrak to Metro North.
I’m impressed that the Google car is able to navigate intersections and pull up to a Taco Bell drive-thru without a single human touch. It’s a Prius, after all -- a car already so numb and electronically cold that it insults me as if I'm some useless, 165-pound mass plopped in the driver’s seat. But for maximum, computer-controlled efficiency, the kind my automatic dishwasher is set for each week, Google’s self-driving technology should become standard on the Prius. It could easily be the world's most comfortable subway car.
Google, as a data-driven company that wants to photograph every street in the world, is trying to prove that every possible road situation can be attacked with another fail-safe string of code. That’s a laudatory, if overly far-reaching, goal. Volvo and Cadillac, as actual automakers, understand what Google doesn’t: Autonomous technology is best used in ideal, specific situations when driving is simply annoying. It’s not important that a car can drive itself all day long -- only when driving isn't worth it.
“Driving is not fun all the time. The customer in the end wants to have a choice. The car should be able to do both,” said Erik Coelingh, Volvo’s lead engineer for the “road train” project that will be tested on Spanish highways this May. “Just making a car that’s only dedicated to automatic driving? That sounds too much like a bus to me.”
Safe Road Trains for the Environment, a project funded by the European Union since 2009, involves a bunch of tailgating Volvos following a truck (a passenger's view of which is pictured above). Each car is “connected” to the one ahead and paced -- both in speed and direction -- by the truck. It’s an idea that General Motors pioneered in 1997 with a train of autonomous Buick LeSabres, a concept that could manage congestion and fit more cars on the roads while saving fuel and eliminating the chance of accidents. (That would be useful, as more than 24,000 people died on U.S. roads last year.)
Cadillac is taking the convenience angle with its Super Cruise technology, which could be ready as soon as 2015. It’s a luxury autopilot that will be available only in the proper conditions, such as visible lane markings and good weather, and will likely be limited to specific highway situations. Thanks to Volvo and Cadillac, autonomous driving is starting to make sense beyond Google’s driverless tests in Nevada. Rather than sensational, it’s proving to be situational -- and, most importantly, it involves the driver making a choice.
Active safety technology, which makes all of this possible, is the best thing that’s happening to the car industry right now. But full-on automation at all times doesn’t necessarily lead to progress. My local CVS Pharmacy has four self-checkout machines and one cashier. My local video store is closing, to be replaced by faceless cable boxes and automated Netflix queues. Are we truly better off without individual control and attention?
I don’t think we are. I pride myself on my parallel-parking skills. My heart races and my palms sweat when I nail the throttle on a desolate stretch of road. I’m a part of the car experience. If, as a nation, we are going to stop driving, we should also be investing in mass transit outside our major cities. Do that. Bring more computer technology into our cars. Just don’t make me feel like I’m 9 years old again.
Self parking, self driving, etc vehicles will only lead to generations of "drivers" who have no business behind the wheel of a vehicle. What happens when they go somewhere and rent a car without all these features?
Oh well, eventually my manual tranmission will be classified as a theft deterrent system and my insurance premiums will go down.
What's next, are we going to outlaw snow, ice and rain?
But as I said, these systems will be good when drivers can actively make a choice themselves on whether their cars drive autonomously or not. Volvo and Cadillac are doing that. The technology won't be useful without using it in a logical, focused context. Heck, a loaded Infiniti M will stop and accelerate for you in traffic...and I must say, it worked even in Boston. But cars should still be cars, and so my only legitimate fear is that they all become washing machines.
WOW, apparently some think that saving lives is not important. You must be proud of yourselves!I am. Most animals on this planet develop a natural equilibrium with their environment; humans on the other hand multiply, and multiply, and destroy until all natural resources are either destroyed or consumed; then they move to a different area, and repeat the process. There is another organism on this planet with the same lifecycle pattern:
Boston is one of the cities that would benefit the most from autonomous vehicles since they are notorious for being amongst the worst, most inconsiderate drivers in the country.
No, Bill....I mean frostyross.....that'd be Colorado Springs. I've never seen more people run stops signs and not use turn signals like those in the Springs.
These new vehicles would ease congestion, relax the high strung Boston drivers and be better at being in the proper lanes at the proper times vs. inconsiderate humans that are all vying for a last second position change.
4 weeks later
Well its no fun even though I've got it into driving (me driving) mode....600 pounds of computers and wires make this thing absolutely no fun to drive...*sigh*
The problems of our grandchildren ^ right there
I like the idea of vehicles offering both automated drive and manual and know that while on a long drive I would use the auto function often. Everyone gets annoyed by ignorant and/or inconsiderate drivers, if you let the car drive you can relax more and forget about the idiots on the road, especially if it gets proven that the auto function can drive more safely than a human. THAT is the key of course, it HAS to be proven to be safer and be reliable. If that is proven then I have to disagree with you Clifford, saving lives is always better than not.
Please pull your luddite head out of your rear. You article is basically a cranky rant about how you don't want to ride a bus or a boring old Prius. Ok. But realized, please, that US drivers log ~8.25 BILLION miles per day. How many of those are taking the mustang out with the top down? I'm going to pull an unscientific number out of my rear and say that 92% of all miles driven are mundane, boring and a waste of time.
I think the effect is going to be exhilerating. When you DESIRE to drive, then take control and go where, when and how fast you want. If you want to get from A to B and not have to pay attention to the lady in front of you applying makeup, or the yuppie scum shouting into his phone while he stradles the lane, the automation sounds like liberation.
Try to use a little imagination instead of lashing out at an idea that scares you.
EXPLORE NEW CARS
MORE ON MSN AUTOS
ABOUT EXHAUST NOTES
Cars are cool, and here at MSN Autos we love everything about them, but we also know they're more than simply speed and style: a car is an essential tool, a much-needed accessory to help you get through your day-to-day life. What you drive is also one of the most important investments you can make, so we'll help you navigate your way through the car buying and ownership experiences. We strive to be your daily destination for news, notes, tips and tricks from across the automotive world. So whether it's through original content from our world-class journalists or the latest buzz from the far corners of the Web, Exhaust Notes helps you make sense of your automotive world.
Have a story idea? Tip us off at firstname.lastname@example.org.