Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion-dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain English. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
The notion of autonomous tech — cars, Hyperloops, Jetson-style personal rockets — is far from a novel one. For as long as we’ve had cartoons and science fiction novels, we’ve had authors and designers dreaming of an era where transportation required little more than a spoken destination. For as practical as the horse-and-buggy was and as groundbreaking as the Model T was, the next giant leap in transport has long since been obvious: we need a method for moving without having to drive. Granted, some motorists motor for the sheer love of the sport. There’s no denying the complete and utter thrill of hammering the pedal of a Ferrari 458, or the rush of fording a river behind the wheel of a Discovery Sport. But what about those times where you’d really, really rather be chauffeured around?
FUTURE-PROOF CARS: Drop-Top Audi R8 | The New Volvo XC90 | Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG
Is the Future Now?
Flying cars aren’t apt to happen in the next few years, but we’re tantalizingly close to a world where self-driving automobiles are reliable enough to strap ourselves into. Earlier this year, Audi sent a driverless A7 sedan on a 550-mile journey from San Francisco to Las Vegas, and it arrived unscathed. Google X, the same lab responsible for Google Glass, has been toiling on an autonomous vehicle for some time now. Uber, the white-hot startup that’s upending the conventional taxi industry, has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University in order to develop a safe, always-on, driverless cab. Moreover, the United Kingdom is rewriting its entire Highway Code in order to allow for driverless car testing. All of this has occurred in just five short years, and the pace of change is, well, accelerating.
The rationale behind the driverless car is fairly simple. If you equip all drivers with an autonomous, connected vehicle, a few things can happen. First, everyone who’s currently suffering through an hour-long commute each day will have an extra hour to snooze or work or get dressed in the backseat. Secondly, a network of driverless cars could be in continual communication, which would prevent throngs of accidents and significantly cut down on traffic congestion. Thirdly, it’s fairly easy to envision a world where driverless taxis are ubiquitous, thus deemphasizing the need to actually own a car. Instead, you could just use any unoccupied vehicle to get from point A to point B, even if it’s a long-distance haul across state lines.
What’s the Holdup?
As with most other technologies that humans have grown to love, capitalists realize that consumers tend to buy things that either make their lives simpler or enable them to have more free time. Let’s use the microwave as an example. It arguably saves time and makes one’s life easier, but its introduction wasn’t without friction. Even now, you’ll find sects that believe the waves being emitted will somehow seep into the human brain and cause all sorts of unnatural occurrences. And that’s an innocuous microwave. The introduction of a rolling, driverless heap of steel capable of high speeds faces an even steeper hill.
Practically speaking, the technology is available today to put an autonomous car into your garage. After Audi’s aforementioned trek to the desert in January, the company confessed that the sensors making it possible were already “production ready”. But we’re still a long, long way from having every driver in the world scream “shotgun!”
The primary hurdle is safety. If your smartphone freezes, locks up, or otherwise trips all over itself, what’s the worst that could happen? You lose all of your photos from the past month? You’re forced to endure 20 seconds of silence while it reboots? Sure, neither of those outcomes are pleasant, but let’s be clear: neither are life-threatening.
Pan over to the autonomous car, and things get a lot more serious. A computer glitch in a vehicle cruising at 60 mph with no driver onboard could cause unfathomable carnage. If we’re talking about a connected network of thousands of driverless cars, a network outage or a hack could send untold vehicles spiraling into ravines, through buildings and off bridges. Put another way, there’s simply no room for error when strapping a human soul into a hunk of metal that’s hurtling down a freeway.
Then, there’s infrastructure. Governments are ill prepared to handle an influx of cars with no driver onboard. Who is a cop to arrest if a car goes rogue and breaks the speed limit? Who is at fault if an autonomous vehicle takes an unpaved road en route to a destination and ends up stuck? Can a self-driving car react to a human-operated tractor that darts into an intersection despite having a red light? Each driverless vehicle will likely have an override feature that would give a human ultimate and immediate control if needed, but that would require the driver to actually be in the driver’s seat, without his or her phone, awake, and generally ready to control a car.
Boiled down, the obstacle is trust. While the technology is here, we as a society do not yet have faith in the driverless car. We’re going to need global (or at the very least, national) agreement on thousands of new protocols and safety measures before the public is willing to let a computer drive them around. We’ll also need mass education on what failsafes there are — items like driver override, a car’s ability to safely get off of the road if it senses a mechanical abnormality, and its ability to alert a driver ahead of time to hazardous conditions that aren’t passable without human intervention. We’re getting closer, but the road to an unmanned highway is both long and winding.