Fundamentally, all autonomous cars are are computers combined with a car. A brain and a body. The computer that’s driving the car is relying on data streams from cameras and sensors and GPS systems, but in the end, it’s just numbers. And because of the nature of computers, this means there’s opportunities to make content for autonomous cars, because autonomous cars can be playback devices. I’ll explain.
It should be technically and theoretically possible for an autonomous car to drive with input not just from its array of cameras and sensors, but from a set of pre-recorded data from another car. The data that can be recorded – and, in the case of almost every drive-by-wire car made today is recorded – is significant: throttle position, steering wheel angle, brake pressure, weight balance, speed, wheel slippage, and, of course, GPS data about where the car goes.
If you’re wondering why the hell anyone would want to do this, think about these possibilities:
• You could go to a particular track and download the fastest lap ever recorded on that track, and ‘replay’ that lap in your car. Famous drivers could record hot laps in cars, and you could download and replay their lap – every action they made, every jiggle of the wheel, every trail-braking foot on the pedal, following the exact line they took through every corner, everything – in your own car. Well, modified to adapt to the performance limits of whatever you’re driving, of course.
Even if you weren’t in the exact same kind of car, this would be an incredible way to learn a track, or just simply enjoy the thrill of whipping around the track with a pro driver at the ‘wheel.’
• You could download entire, curated road trips. Let’s say you wanted to take Charlie Day’s Amazing Corndog Tour Of America, a road trip he took and recorded where he traverses 37 states to find the best corndogs in the U.S. You could download the trip, perhaps with some sort of audio commentary track or music playlist, and set off: the GPS path of the original trip would play back, complete with stopping at selected corndog palaces.
• You could tackle a challenging off-road course even if you’ve never done it before. Assuming you have a vehicle with the right equipment, you could download and play back an off-road drive from an expert who will not get you stuck, or at least will give you a fighting chance at not getting so stuck.
Actually, this idea is sort of already being explored by Land Rover, as a way to help people drive off-road. It’s not the same as downloading entire drives, but it’s close, in that it’s providing a skillset to the car to augment and/or replace the human.
• You could go to a new city as a tourist and download a tour of the city, right to your car. There could be a huge number of very specific tours, planned and plotted by experts in a given field. Hell, I could have made a pretty good tour of all the interesting and weird cars on the Eastside of LA. There could be architecture tours, food tours, booze tours, whatever. And since the car is driving, you could gawk and drink as much as you’d like.
• Hypermilers, traffic avoiders, speed junkies, and all sorts of other specific-driving-interest groups could create and share or sell routes that cater to their particular interests. For example, if you have an electric car and really need to find a route that lets you squeeze the maximum range out of your batteries, you could find and download a recorded drive from an electric car hypermiling expert who has the patience and skills to make that possible.
You may have a long, annoying commute; there could be an online group of people with similar commutes who work together to find the optimal, least trafficked or most senic or quickest routes, and they could exchange and share their recorded drive files.
There’s a lot more possibilities here I haven’t even thought of; stored autocross runs, forensic use by police to play back the drive of a criminal’s car, recordings of famous movie drives, like the chase scene from Bullitt (you’d probably have to block off roads for that one), synchronized automotive-dance programs for many cars in big, empty parking lots, possibly for weddings, and I’m sure lots more.
Of course, these recorded playback drives would have to be subject to the entropy of the real world; sometimes traffic and environmental conditions won’t allow for the exact playback of a recorded drive, and in those cases the car’s existing camera and sensor input would take precedence, and adapt the playback accordingly, to keep everyone safe. There’s no reason that wouldn’t be technically possible.
Ideally, I’d like one universal standard for automotive playback content, so we don’t end up with a bunch of incompatible App Store-like situations for every automaker. I’m thinking there’d be some sort of online repository–possibly many– of these, with provisions for selling for-pay downloadable driving files, as well as an open marketplace for user-generated driving files for people to share.
There would need to be vetting processes, of course, so people can’t develop malware driving files that send the cars on spiraling death-rampages, but the cars themselves should also be able to evaluate any driving file that gets loaded for safety concerns, and to adapt the files to the safe limits of the particular car.
I’m sure a lot of commenters will mention that this opens cars up even more to hacking and security issues, and you’re probably right. There should always be a quick, easy way to stop the playback of a driving file if, somehow, the car’s own danger-detection systems miss something or are compromised. Really, an easy emergency shutdown is probably a good idea to have in an an autonomous car, anyway.
Sure, after just typing that part of my insecure brain is wondering if maybe this is a terrible idea? No, I’m sticking to my guns, here. This could be really great, and open up all kinds of possibilities for autonomous cars, and could be something that helps preserve the joy of driving even in an age when there’s no driving to be done.
Also, it creates a whole new job description for people who love driving: Interesting Drive Experience Content Creator. That sounds like a pretty sweet gig.
Autonomous cars can be passive or interactive playback devices just like game consoles, DVD players, tape decks, on and on back to player pianos. I wonder if it’ll actually happen?