"The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles; it will be the engine pulling the industry forward." —from Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution
n the future, cars will be part of a massive communications network. Cars will not only communicate with each other, but with traffic lights, road signs, and satellites. Accidents will be a thing of the past, traffic congestion will disappear, and there will be no one in the driver’s seat. In fact, there will be no driver’s seat, since the car of the future will drive itself. At least, that’s what the prognosticators tell us, but how realistic is this vision?
According to Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution, a document published by professional services company KPMG, “The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles; it will be the engine pulling the industry forward. Consumers are eager for new mobility alternatives that would allow them to stay connected and recapture the time and psychic energy they squander in traffic jams and defensive driving.”
The self-driving car may seem to be a foregone conclusion, given the ever-more intrusive safety features being put in cars, but for the true self-driving car to bring about the collision-free future that many are predicting, a great many highly unlikely things need to happen.
As Google has shown, the technology needed to make driverless cars work is already here, even if it’s not completely ready for mass production. Much of this involves vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication and various sensors, but one major component is infrastructure-based: traffic lights and intersections will need to be able to communicate with cars as well.
There’s no way that self-driving cars will become a viable mode of transportation without government involvement. In addition to the massive infrastructure spending that would need to happen, it would most likely take a huge government initiative to ensure that all the auto manufacturers have their self-driving cars available by a specific date (as the government currently does with safety regulations, emissions, and CAFE standards).
In the interim, however, other technologies could keep us safer. According to Richard Wallace, one of the publication’s authors, technologies like “camera, RADAR, and LiDAR systems [could] provide significant safety benefits beyond V2V and [would not be] dependent on other vehicles being equipped with anything.”
But even these systems would require significant investment in infrastructure on the part of state and local governments, most of which are currently in dire financial shape.
If only a few people choose to travel in self-driving cars, their safety will still be largely dependent on the behavior of the cars still driven by humans. Crash-avoidance systems would be effective for avoiding some potential accidents, but if the majority of cars on the road are not talking to your car, your car still won’t be able to get out of the way in time.
According to Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution, “To work well, connected vehicle technology requires a large network of vehicles equipped with similar, or at least interoperable, communication systems. With high degrees of vehicle autonomy comes the need for higher degrees of cooperation and, hence, higher levels of adoption density to deliver the technology’s full value and potential.”
The biggest hurdle the self-driving car has to clear, aside from the infrastructure investment and coordination, is a change in attitude among car buyers. In a self-driving-car-driven future, practicality will trump performance, and safety will trump everything else. At least in the future currently imagined, everyone will be a passenger. Your car will no longer be an extension of your personality, or a means to compensate for your anatomical shortcomings; your car will be your personal taxi. This has the benefit of freeing us up to do other things during our commute (much like people who commute by public transportation already do), but it also has the effect of making us disconnected from our vehicles in a way that’s difficult to imagine, given the way cars are currently marketed and purchased.
The authors of Self-Driving Cars grasp this, and suggest that car-sharing may become the norm once practicality reigns. But this is a notion that’s a bit too close to Socialism for many red-blooded Americans.
Another effect of self-driving technology will be a radical change in car design. Cars will no longer need to be designed to survive crashes, since, in theory, all crashes will be avoided.
“[There is] potential for significant redesign once crash-less [cars are] a reality,” Wallace says. “Such a redesign would allow most vehicles to be significantly downsized.”
If the self-driven future arrives, and we’re all being ferried to and fro passively in our perfectly law-and-speed-limit-abiding vehicles, we may indeed find ourselves wondering—as some of us already do during our miserable, tortoise-slow commutes—”why aren’t we all just on a train?” And this is why it’s much easier to imagine that intrusive safety features and V2V communication will become better and more common, but that ultimately, we’ll still prefer to have ourselves—as opposed to our cars—in the driver’s seat.