Nevada has already started licensing driverless cars. California is right behind them, albeit with a few more caveats (big off switches, etc). This is just the beginning, of course. Driverless cars are absolutely coming, and in many ways this is the biggest advancement in motoring since the cupholder and 8-track combined.
For many people, a driverless car will be the first real robot they'll ever own and a return to having self-aware transportation like we've had for a big chunk of human existence.
I actually think this is such a big deal to us as gearheads that I'll be exploring what this means in a series of posts — I don't think one is going to do this justice. It has the potential to radically change how we interact with our cars, the way cars are viewed in our society, and the entire culture of automotive enthusiasts.
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I'm not an alarmist, and, despite my personal choice of cars, no luddite. Change isn't always bad, but it is change. Right now, we're at the very beginning of this new era for cars, and now is the time to define a place and ethos for those of us who truly love cars, and love driving them.
Lets get this started by really thinking about what it will mean to have an autonomous self-driving car. For the sake of our thought-experiments, let's assume it's, oh, 2025, when most companies seem to agree we'll definately have self-driving cars being sold regularly. If it helps, you can also imagine you're wearing a silver jumpsuit and eating pizzas-in-pills, too.
Here's the strange thing to realize: in many ways, having a self-driving car will represent a sort of step backwards. See, pretty much since Dr. (posthumously granted) Ulngh the caveman invented the wheel, every means of personal conveyance have been powered by a reasonably self-aware being. Maybe not capable of writing poetry or helping you pick out drapes, but certainly what we'd call "autonomous." Horses, yaks, donkeys, llamas, camels, tigers, all those. The bicycle is sort of an exception, since, being human-powered, it's more of an extension/enhancement to our own locomotive abilities.
This period of relying on an aware being to get us around ends with the dawn of the automobile. I'm not counting trains because I'm talking about personal transport here, and, really, if we begin cars with the late 1700s/ early 1800 steam-powered experiments, it's essentially the same time. So if we go back to autonomous vehicles, cars as we know them may end up being a curious blip in the continuum of human transportation.
We already anthropomorphize our cars, we give them names, and I don't know a car person who doesn't feel that their car has moods, of sorts. How are we going to react to our cars when they make their own decisions? The sufficiently complex software and systems are likely to, at least occasionally, produce minor unexpected results that we won't help but try and interpret as a personality. Different companies may program slightly different throttle mapping behaviors, or levels of speed deemed comfortable for a given turn, etc. That means car companies will have a particular character for how their cars act, much like how different companies have particular traits about how their cars drive today.
Personally, I think the average person's relationship with their car will get more complex, and, in some ways, dependent. Present day driving is the act of piloting a machine — in the best cars, it can feel like an extention of your own body. It amplifies and enhances your actions, your choices, good or bad. An autonomous car necessarily makes you a passenger. You're giving up control to the machine, and as a result will be forced to be more dependent on the car. Will our relationship resemble a wealthy dowager and her chauffeur, or a man and his trusted horse?
The key is there's now another being in the equation. Current cars are yours in the sense that you, the driver, control it. A car you don't control you may own, but it'll never be an extension of you.
And here's something else exciting to consider: autonomous cars will likely be the first actual, genuine robot people will own. I mean beyond the little electronic trilobites that half-assedly vacuum some of our homes. A real robot, a computer that process the real world and affects it physically back. We're calling them "cars" but make no mistake: those Google Prii are robots, zipping up and down Lombard street.
And that realization, that cars are becoming robots we ride in, is sort of the crux of all this. While I'm sure (at least at first, and perhaps for a long while) a human will be required to sit in the drivers' seat as a failsafe, I can foresee the day when even that precaution is deemed unnecessary, and cars really become little mobile robot transport rooms. At that point, owning a car is a very different thing than what it is now, and driving for the sheer joy of it will become something more like what horseback riding is today.
The physical act of driving itself may become something solely for enthusiasts or classic-car eccentrics. Perhaps people will still learn how to drive in case of emergencies, though perhaps not. Will companies still produce human-driven cars? Will there be a split in the market, with companies producing autonomous cars and others producing cars for driving enthusiasts? Without the burden of general practicality, this could user in a golden age for sporting drivers' cars.
If autonomous cars are expensive, as the first generations of them likely will be, it's possible human-driving may become a skill only retained by lower-income people and enthusiasts. Further down the road, as technology develops and economies of scale come into play, the situation could reverse, with cheap robot cars available and a premium placed on human-driven cars. In some ways, this mirrors horse ownership: in the early days of the automobile, only the wealthy had cars. As time went on and cars became cheaper and eventually ubiquitous, horse riding became a pastime of the rich. Is driving doomed to the same fate?
When most cars are autonomous, what happens to driving for, you know, the hell of it? Even people not interested in the dynamics of driving often just go for a drive, with no destination in mind. Could you tell an autonomous car to just "drive around?" What if you don't know where you're going, exactly, and you're just exploring? I suppose with voice control, you could bark orders to go left or right or slow down, but then I think we'd all feel more and more like wealthy old bitties mistreating the help.
And, while we're wondering, what about sending a pet to the vet in a driverless car? Or a kid to school? Can your car run errands for you while you're at work? Will new types of commercial spaces develop with fully automated drive-through systems? Should autonomous cars be designed with a standard for automated cargo loading and unloading? Could you send you car to get you lunch, and have it pay with your credit card data stored on it, transmitted wirelessly? The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that moving people from place to place is only one part of what driverless cars can do.
Our relationship with cars is about to change. Not tomorrow, but sooner than we think. I'm generally the sort of guy that sees the tank as half full of gas, so I think, as a whole, the advent of the robo-car will be a good thing for lovers of driving. There will always be a place for those of us that love to drive, and love vintage cars. I'm never giving up my Bug or Scimitar, but the idea of a robot car sharing the driveway is a very engaging thought.
I'd love to hear what everyone thinks in the comments; I know I brought up a lot of questions, and that's kind of the point. Coming up, I'd like to explore what robot cars mean for the tuner market, and how car hacking and DIY work will have lots of new weird outlets. But for now, I just want to hear what everyone thinks about our new robotic car overlords.
And let's all agree not to get them angry.