2 Sept 2014

Relax, It's Only a Self-Driving Car

Bill Crittenden reckons driverless cars are a good thing

Recently Google released images and information on a self-driving car. What is the epic realization of so many overly optimistic 1960's World's Fair displays is apparently an abomination that will be the detriment of petrolheads the world over.

Because, based on what some seem to believe, only silly-looking bubbles that drive themselves will dominate the roads in a few years. Car guys sure are acting like they really think that they'll be forced to trade in their Challengers and Porsches for one of Google's plastic "cars," because they're squealing like Ted Nugent at his imaginary threat of a government agent come to take his guns away.

Here's what the Google car can do, and what it won't do:

Holy shit, it really seems to be able to drive itself. Aljazeera America showed a blind man driving himself home, and this will be an amazing technology for those who physically or legally can't drive themselves. Let's look at the potential here: besides the aforementioned blind man, there are the very elderly, those with debilitating injuries or mental issues that prevent safe driving, and people on medications that make driving unsafe, all of whom can now find themselves safely mobile again without the assistance of anyone else.

Those are just the people with permanent issues who could benefit from a self-driving car. Then there are the people who could benefit from a self-driving car for temporary reasons. I, for one, have been stuck at work on an occasionally unexpected double shift and have had difficulty staying awake behind the wheel. One could start driving during the day and let the car take over at night, making trips to and home from college quicker and cheaper. People with injuries or sudden illnesses can take themselves to the hospital. How about all of the folks on their way home from the bar or the ballpark who have had a few alcoholic drinks? They sure could use a self-driving mode in a car, as could the rest of us who have to share the road with them.

Which brings me to another point. Google's car is mostly a prototype. Like the "safety cars" of the 1970's or the Toyota Prius, it was built to show what could be done. Crumple zones and gas-electric hybrid engines both filtered down into more conventional cars that people will buy. The technology, once proven on its test platform, will proliferate into all types of cars from economy to luxury, utility trucks and sports cars.

Google's bubble is going to be a museum piece while the Camrys and Camaros of my son's generation are embedded with more developed versions of the sensors and software that make Google's car run on its own.

It won't be an all-or-nothing system, either, as it could be operated as an "autopilot" on a car with conventional controls, activated when needed. Modern cars are already doing away with mechanical links in favor of enhanced drive-by-wire, so inserting a new control method into the system isn't going to ruin what we already have in the modern car's control system.

We're already seeing this on-demand electronic self driving in the form of "park assist" functions newly available on some cars. We're also seeing the safety potential of cars that can take over and override the in attention or mistakes of its drivers in Mercedes-Benz's automatic brakes. But these are, primarily, cars that humans drive that assist us either when we ask them to or when safety demands the computer step in. Both systems have added to convenience and safety without ruining the enjoyment of actually driving.

That is, of course, when you want to drive. Not all car trips are joyrides through the countryside. Imagine the convenience of your own automobile with the free time of a train ride to work. No schedules, no walking from the station to the office, but you can still read the paper each morning as though you were on the Metra, and arrive at work without the stress of focusing in stop & go traffic for an hour and the occasional road rage incident that inevitably happens when a half million irritable drivers share the road on a Monday morning.

No, Google's bubble car isn't going to kill "real cars" like the Mustang and replace it, it's testing out technology that's going to make it so that in ten years a new 2025 Mustang will drive you home from the bar itself if you get too drunk and save you from the tedium of rush hour the next morning.

How can that not be the coolest, most historic, most positive game-changing automotive technology that's come about in any of our lifetimes?