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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Future of Autonomous Automobiles

Cars will, one day, drive themselves.

The technology is not an issue. Between the DARPA Grand and Urban Challenges, the ability of an automobile to get about safely on its own will surpass that of a human driver in the next few years. Actually, relative to some drivers I've known, robotic cars are already far better. Add another five to ten years beyond that to make the technology cheap (less than $1,000 per vehicle) and autonomous automobiles will be ready to roll by 2020 (more or less).

But will cars drive themselves by 2020? Some might, but I doubt that very many will. There are many cultural issues that will stymie the adoption of robotic vehicles.

The biggest problem is that even a car that has perfect software will still occasionally get in an accident. Its frequency of accidents will be far below that of an average human, but it will still get in accidents. Driving on roads is sheer chaos. Sensors will stop working, joggers will jump in front of the cars, bicyclists will bound on by, meters will malfunction, streets will be unexpectedly slippery, etc. It's not clear how blame for accidents involving robotic cars will be assigned and how the damage will be paid for (I've given one humorous example here). My observations lead me to believe it will be many decades, perhaps even centuries before these critical issues are resolved. If every time someone is killed in an autonomous automobile accident (and it will happen), the software company is bankrupted via lawsuits, robotic vehicles will never gain any traction. That would be true even if they reduced automobile accidents by a factor of ten overall.

Ultimately, I think demand for such vehicles will be so strong that we'll figure out the legal and cultural aspects. The military will drive the technology whether or not there ever are non-military robotic cars. After all, the military uses far more dangerous weapons and people are killed all the time. For the military, safer and higher performance are better, even if people still die.

The elderly will increasingly need cars that drive themselves. Many states are now taking away licenses of older drivers who are likely to be high risk (for example, because they can't see). But taking away licenses has a huge cost of its own. It consigns the elderly to their houses, making it very difficult for them to get out and receive the stimulation required to maintain physical and mental health. It also makes it difficult for them to get groceries, buy clothes, and otherwise take care of themselves, leading to earlier transfer of these citizens into expensive assisted living situations.

For the elderly, cars that can drive themselves are the perfect solution. They needn't endanger themselves and others, yet they still would have the mobility they need. In fact, their mobility will likely increase, since many elderly drivers avoid going out at night because of vision issues.

So that's where I see robotic cars getting their toehold for non-military applications. The clout of the elderly voting bloc (and their children) will force the legislation required to enable the elderly to have such vehicles. I'm hoping by the time I'm old enough to need a car to drive me (approximately 2040), that we'll have gotten through all of the necessary societal hurdles.

Once this happens, I predict the flood gates will open. Taxis will drive themselves, greatly reducing cab fares. In fact, I predict that cab fares will be so greatly reduced that more and more people will take taxis everywhere and won't even bother owning a car. The autonomous taxis will be so smart that there will always be one of just the right size available for you and the group you're with right when and where you need it. Eventually, almost nobody will own a car since having a car sit in your garage is allowing a great deal of capital equipment sit idle.

Cars will talk to each other (electronically). As a result, they'll be able to drive much closer to each other which will enable far more of them to fit on existing roads even while traveling at much higher speeds. Most cars will have one or two seats enabling even more cars to fit on the roads. Fuel efficiency will increase further since the cars will "draft" off of each other. It will be possible to fit approximately 5 times as many cars on a typical freeway.

I see all of this happening within twenty years of when cars begin driving the elderly about. The first step is the hardest, the rest will happen very quickly.


erp said...

Cars driving themselves? I see lots of problems even past the technical ones. Will programmable cars be an option or will humans be forced out of the driver's seat?

Driving is so much fun and tooling around in your own car represents such great independence and freedom, I'd hate to have subsequent generations sitting like lumps while their cars transport them as if they were freight.

Bret said...

Yes, that's my point. It will take a long time to work out the answers to those questions.

Personally, I dislike driving (I find it very tiring) and would like nothing better than to tell my car where to take me, kick back, fire up a computer, and do a little blogging...

Susan's Husband said...


Did you not have family? What did they do while you were driving except sitting like lumps while their parent transported them?


The taxicab idea might be the first wave, as a city might indemnify itself against accidents in a way a private citizen couldn't.

Bret said...

susan's husband,
Good point. Though I suppose the taxi drivers' associations will fight it tooth and nail.

erp said...

Cruise Control: I meant to mention it in my previous comment as an example of automation that is dangerous. I can't believe it's still an option on cars. We've done a lot of long distance driving on our highways and byways and I can always tell a car on cruise control because instead of the driver keeping steady hands and feet on the controls so the car stays in the middle of the lane, the car sways like a camel in the desert and makes me seasick if I get stuck behind them.

Also, in an emergency, it takes a couple of extra seconds to stop because it doesn't slow down immediately as the foot comes off the gas and hits the brakes. If the driver is incapacitated, the car will continue its forward motion until it hits something (or runs out of gas), often another car.

Passengers: are another story. Of course, kids sit like lumps until they're old enough to go off on their own wheels and even though my husband drives most of the time on short hops, we alternate on longer trips, so I don't feel like a lump.

Taxis: probably won't be parked in my garage, so I'll have to get to the central location where they hang out or call them for a pick up bringing us back to the reason public transportation is so abhorrent and inconvenient.

There's nothing like having your own car, which is maintained to your own standards of safety and cleanliness, at your disposal 24/7 and I can't imagine people giving up that marvelous luxury until they have been beaten down and habituated into thinking that they'll be better off with it.

Susan's Husband said...

"maintained to your own standards of safety and cleanliness"

You're presuming those are higher than the taxi-cab company's. I don't think that's true as a general rule.

It's the same reason I use MovableType and you use Blogger. I like my weblog to be maintained to my personal standards, which are much higher than Blogger's. But most people aren't that particular, so Blogger is much more popular.

Bret said...

Re: Taxis - I'm sure people will still be able to own their own cars and, especially in rural areas, probably a majority will. In New York City, a lot of people, even relatively well-off ones, don't bother owning their own cars even today because it's such a hassle.

When most people use robotic taxis, everywhere (except very rural areas) will be "central" as far as getting a cab. You'll be able to call one via the future equivalent of your cell phone and it'll be there in seconds (before you make it out the door). You'll have a car everywhere and anywhere 24/7.

How I look forward to not having to go to gas stations, to not having to get the car maintained, to just getting out of one that breaks down and leaving it to get into another one, to not having to wash the car. How I look forward to turning my garage into a music studio. Your car is apparently clean, but my car's rear passenger area is usually knee deep in random bits of little girls soccer equipment and clothing and snack and drink wrappers. How I look forward to not paying registration and insurance. Indeed, how I look forward to not paying for the car in one lump sum!

To each there own, of course.

erp said...

My standard for maintaining my cars is satisfactory to me.

I have no standard for maintaining my blog. I just follow the Blogger program because it's there and it's easy. Basically I use my blog as a repository for things that interest me and now that I've discovered widgets and other blog options, it's been fun trying to figure out what they do and how they work.

HTML code is fascinating. I still haven't looked into it enough to be able to even think about it coherently, but it looks like it would be fun to get things to work the way you want them to. Something like the good old days before the mouse was even a gleam in Apple's eye.

Susan's Husband said...


I am saying that most people feel about their cars the way you feel about your blog, and therefore will see the taxi cab's standards the way Bret does, as an improvement for less work.

erp said...

I have no problem with people doing what works for them.

Hey Skipper said...

I predict this will occur first on limited access highways, where the driver has specified the offramp prior to entering the onramp.

If all cars talk to each other (airplanes do this now via the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System), and a central computer takes the view from "on-high", then traffic flow will become nearly laminar, and following distances will reduce to NASCAR levels.

Surface streets are a separate, and much more complicated issue, since many occupants (pedestrians, pets, cyclists, etc) have no existence within the automated systems problem space.