Lately, it has become more apparent than ever that autonomous cars are coming for real and they are coming soon. But are people actually going to buy cars they won't drive?
On the subject of autonomous cars, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said something in an interview that really got me thinking about what that means for cars and driving in general. Zetsche, speaking to The Detroit News, said that the most important goal of autonomous cars is ultimately to make traveling in a car safer, but another concern is "to relieve the driver of tedious or difficult tasks while at the wheel."
What kinds of tasks was Dr. Zetsche referring to there? Turning on your headlights? Checking your mirrors and looking out for traffic when you turn or change lanes? Peering ahead of you to determine proper braking distance? Keeping your hands on the steering wheel?
I have a word that sums up all of those things you do behind the wheel. I call it "driving."
But more and more carmakers and tech companies, from General Motors to Google to Mercedes-Benz, seem intent on taking at least some — and perhaps ultimately all — of those steps away from us.
Here's my question: If we get to the point where cars can fully drive themselves, will people really buy them? I have a feeling the answer to that will be "yes."
Don't get me wrong, the goal of autonomous cars is a noble one, and that is to cut down on car crashes and reduce injuries and fatalities on the road. Say what you want about size and weight and boring-ness, but modern cars are now safer than they have ever been. Traffic deaths are at an all-time low. Carmakers, as they should, seek to make cars safer and safer, and this is inevitably the next great step in that direction: removing human decisions and human mistakes from traveling in cars.
We're not quite at the point of driverless cars, but we are getting there. Google advances the ball on that technology more and more each year. Luxury cars will now brake and follow other cars automatically when cruise control is set. The new Infiniti Q50 automatically adjusts its own steering to stay in the lane, offering a sort of "ghost hand" on the wheel that gently keeps you where you need to be. (And of course, it's probably safe to assume that even fully autonomous cars will have some kind of backup system that lets you drive it yourself if need be.)
I think it's safe to say that people like you and me — people who enjoy driving — are probably dreading having control of the car taken away from us. But I am not sure the mainstream car-buying public will miss it all that much.
Whenever I think of fully autonomous cars, one movie springs to mind: the 1994 martial arts/time travel movie Timecop. You can be forgiven if you've never seen Timecop. To be fair, it's one of Jean-Claude Van Damme's better movies, but that's kind of damning with faint praise. (It's better than Street Fighter, but very few movies aren't.)
Anyway, one aspect of Timecop's far-flung future year of 2004 is that we will all ride around in big, horrendously ugly machines that ask us where we want to go and then take us there. In that future world, the car had been reduced (if you want to call it that) from a machine that someone actively operates to what is essentially an electronic chauffeur.
For the past 130 years or so, cars have always been something that a human being has operated in order to get from point A to point B. It's starting to look like that really won't be the case anymore.
In some ways, it makes sense. I think even those of us who love being behind the wheel will admit that most day to day aspects of driving — being stuck in traffic, commuting to work, and so on — can be downright miserable. Juan Barnett summed this up extremely well in a recent post. To paraphrase what he said there, life isn't filled with endless, cop-free back roads. Not having to deal with the worst aspects of driving does have some appeal.
And what if you don't care about driving at all, like most car owners? What if that endless, cop-free back road is never going to be your idea of a good time? Will you even miss driving? My guess is not.
Plus, there's the Chinese market, now the largest and most important one in the entire world. As you have no doubt heard, the wealthiest Chinese car owners prefer to be chauffeured around, which is why so many sedans there come in limo-esque long wheelbase versions.
Can you really blame them for this, though? Large cities in China are like dystopian nightmares when it comes to traffic, where jams can last more than a week. We'll see how long the car remains a status symbol over there when people start to really get sick of this kind of thing.
For those reasons, I see the all-important Chinese market embracing autonomous cars wholeheartedly. And I think Americans will join them, even if it means the nation famous for its love affair with the open road and the automobile abandons driving for computerized chauffeurs.
Maybe we'll keep out love for the open road. We just won't be the ones operating the machines that take us there.