In more than a hundred years of the automobile, there has never been any doubt that the auto bit of the word meant that the vehicle could move under its own power. But today the paradigm is beginning to change. The new age of the self-piloting car is upon us – in effect they are they new autoautomobile. The stuff of science fiction is becoming fact and you and me are going to find ourselves in the enforced rest of a driver’s seat without a steering wheel attached.
Let’s dig a little deeper into why the whole idea of a car that can drive itself brings out differing opinions in people. In all the years I’ve been in the business of automotive journalism, I’ve had more than my share of people who either love driving, are passionate about speed and just love the thrills of taking a fast car around a track. In short, the bulk of the people I meet in the normal case could be slotted on a scale of from better than average to bleeding motor oil. But that, I am informed, is not necessarily the complete world as we know it. Apparently there is a huge section of the public that is completely indifferent to the joys of driving – in fact there are some that would have nothing to do with it. I should have been better informed, I live with someone who thinks it’s a chore and would happily let me take over anytime.
In a modern family only one member needs to be a driver. But what about family units that don’t have a driver amidst them. And how about the greater needs of the transport industry? The very idea of a self-piloting car is so very tempting to so many people and that’s why Google and now Apple are getting in on that, while Tesla is making the big move from electric traction to the next stage.
Of course, there are the usual pitfalls of any new leap ahead in technology. The big wrinkle that the technology had till recently was Google’s car hitting a bus. Now we’ve had the first loss of life, with a Tesla car being involved in a highway accident. Is it perhaps only secondary that the driver was watching a Harry Potter movie as he died? And that’s not going to be the last death that’s caused by the magic of programming and logic trying to navigate the highways and crossings of the real world. Do you ever question a driver’s ability to do this? Even if he is a 18-year old first timer on the road? Even in very lax licencing regimes, a driver can do everything necessary to avoid hitting others or sundry stationary objects – till one day an accident happens and it is more often than not blamed on ‘human error’. So now do we blame it on machine error? And just count the insurance cost of the event and get on with life?
We are going to get a lot more of this happening. BMW has announced it will be building robot cars, Nissan has a clear roadmap of how we will be sold increasingly capable self-piloting cars over the next decade and almost every manufacturer worth their salt already has cars that have varying degrees of ability to drive in a laser measured convoy and brake to a halt. It wasn’t so long ago that no manufacturer would dare offer that, as the litigation costs in the US alone would have broken them if any accident had happened as a result of that.
What has changed now? For one, the regulatory environment in the United States has, with states already looking at framing laws that will allow self-driving cars. We will soon see the European Union and Japan doing their bit as well. And the technology has reached the point where manufacturers can sign off on increasingly sophisticated cars. And then there’s the thrill of being a pioneer in the field. It’s good to see that the past two decades have brought out the next phase in the journey of the automobile and that we are here to take a ride in it.
However I have to admit that I’ll really miss that steering wheel.