In a very real way, self-driving cars are already here.
Several current model year vehicles can park themselves, for instance. As I type this, there is a new Lexus GS350 in my driveway. It self-parks. Push a button and the car will line itself up, adjust steering angle – and slot itself into a spot. The only action required by the “driver” (that’s you) is to gently depress the accelerator pedal when the car tells you to. Everything else is automated.
About a month ago, I got a new Acura MDX to test out. It came equipped with semi-autonomous steering (in addition to autonomous parking). Push a button and the car’s computer brain – in conjunction with electronic eyes that can scan the painted lines on the road – keeps the car on track. You can feel the steering wheel making course corrections without any input from you.
The system is not yet foolproof. If the painted lines are faded – or the curves in the road too severe – the MDX loses track of where it’s headed and will beep urgently to let you know. So that you can take over.
For the moment, a driver is still needed.
But it’s clear that moment will be brief.
Self-driving technology is elaborating itself at a literally exponential rate. Five or so years ago, there were no cars that could self-park (or self-steer).”Active” cruise control – the car automatically adjusts its following distance in relation to the ebb and flow of traffic, increasing/decreasing speed without you having to do anything – was cutting edge and found almost exclusively in a very few very high-end cars. There were none that could sense an object in the car’s path and apply the brakes full-force and automatically bring the car to a complete stop, if need be, without the “driver” even touching the brake pedal.
Such systems are almost de facto standard equipment (like leather seats and climate control AC) today in higher-end cars – and they are becoming common in cars priced in the $30k-ish range. Just as climate control AC and leather seats are now almost-expected amenities in cars costing around $25k, so it will be that within a few years at the latest, virtually every car that’s not an entry-level economy type of car will come equipped with at least some degree of driver-less “assistance.”
Probably, even entry-level cars will soon boast such technology – as a result of the same market forces that have made AC and power windows and cruise control and iPod hook-ups included in the standard equipment package of probably 95 percent of 2014 model year vehicles. I cannot remember the last time I got a new car to test drive that didn’t come standard with all of those things.
Just so, these electronic assists will filter, as by osmosis, from top to bottom.
It’s not like it is depicted in the commercials. The open road, a sunny day. You and your car, having a ball.
No traffic, no hassles.
The reality – for most people – is slogging along in relentless, endless bumper-to-bumper traffic. Staring at the tailgate of the minivan ahead with its stick figure family and yellow and pink ribbons.
What the car company PR people like to call “infotainment” – the LCD touchscreen displays with Internet connectivity, Bluetooth, all that stuff – is there precisely because the act of driving has been rendered largely futile.
Or criminal. (See here, for instance, to learn all about usurious traffic fines and “reckless driving” busts.)
People need to be distracted. The experience of staring at the tailgate of a minivan with a stick figure family for an hour (or three) every day – every day – saps one’s will to live. Think Skinner Box – richly appointed with the finest suede or leather, of course.
But this creates its own problems. People not noticing the light has gone from green to red – having been too immersed in conversation about the latest episode of The Following. They wander across the double yellow into the opposing lane of traffic. They gradually lose the ability to parallel park – and so, inevitably, the inclination to try.
What they want, increasingly – understandably, reluctant as I am to concede it – is to be transported from A to B with the least stress possible, in the most comfort possible. The overt tendency is to demand less and less from the driver – and more and more from the car. People want this; they increasingly expect this.
The waning interest in manual transmissions is object proof. All the TV commercial hoo-hah about zoom zoom zooming around the ‘Ring stands in stark contrast to the fact that it is getting damned hard to find a new car (much less a new truck) that has a manual transmission. The breakdown is something like 6.5 percent of all new vehicles (this includes trucks) come with a manual transmission vs. the other 93.5 percent that are automatic (see here).
That’s what they call in law enforcement a clue.
ABS, traction and stability control? Ubiquitous. And – note carefully – none of these things have been mandated by the government. They have been mandated by the market. It’s what people – most people – want and more, expect. A car lacking any of these features would be regarded by many people as “unsafe” – or at least, depicted that way by competitors.
Hence the ubiquity.
And so it will be with self-parking, self-braking, self-steering. And, inevitably, self-driving altogether. The public will demand it, the car companies will provide it. Probably without government having to insist it be done. (Ford has publicly stated it will offer cars fully capable of self-driving you from to doorstep to doorstep by 2017; Mercedes and BMW target 2020. This is no more than six years down the road. See here for more.)
Because the attitude of Americans – a working majority of them – toward cars, toward driving – has done a parking brake 180 since the days of my youth in the ’80s and prior. In those long-gone days, a working majority wanted to drive – enjoyed the act for its own sake. It probably helped that one could drive – really drive – with less risk of life-altering repercussions. Certainly, there were “bears” out there – and tickets, too. But you didn’t have to worry about being shot to death over a traffic infraction. There were no East German Stasi-style “safety” checkpoints to make being out at night a scary proposition. It was relatively free – and so, fun.
It’s neither anymore. It’s become a chore – and a bore.
Hence the rise of the autonomous car. You can take a nap; maybe get some work done. And you won’t get a ticket.
It is a function of exasperation – a four-wheeled manifestation of our resignation.
We give up.
Jesus – Google? – take the wheel… .
Throw it in the Woods?
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