Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD
Among the voices in the buzz around autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars are those saying that making a vehicle drive itself “ruins the experience”. This is akin to those who say that drones will never replace human pilots, until you point out that a drone fighter can take a turn to the maximum capability of the airframe in a dogfight. In the case of the car, the focus on the driver has intensified, if nothing else. Cars have always been about the driver, and people in each generation (and society) determine what they want from a vehicle.
In the past, people focused on a car’s engine, and the power it could produce. As fuel prices went up and road freedom went down, the focus was still on the engine but expanded to peripherals in the vehicle. Beginning with broadcast music and news (the first true infotainment system), in-car entertainment expanded as technology gave more functionality to peripherals. Pioneers like Ze'ev Drori migrated advanced features like remote locks and engine start into cars using an aftermarket alarm system as the data and control bus. Their anti-carjacking tech was a predecessor to today’s OnStar and other vehicle-management systems.
Eventually all of these advanced functionalities were absorbed into the OEM infrastructure, with the only reminder (kind of like “Body by Fisher” in GM cars) being an old hi-end stereo company’s logo on the dashboard. With the addition of wireless communication capabilities, beginning with the car phone, the user has increasingly become the center of attention of all the vehicle’s systems, each handling its part of the driver’s worldview. The IoT and Cloud are just a culmination of in-car trends that began with Bill Lear.
Ironically, the problem is the driver/passenger migration from a near-frame external focus (driving a car, paying attention to what is going on outside of the windows, and using the vehicle’s systems to maneuver), to an internal focus on our devices that ironically lets people pay attention and interface with the greater world while not being able to react to what is right in front of them. Today’s kids don’t want to have to hassle with driving and many cannot afford cars at all, so there is a building need for self-driving cars that would allow all the passengers to focus on their own things while the car chauffeurs them about.
Another advantage to self-driving tech is that once it reaches critical mass, it will change how people commute forever. Most traffic jams are caused by bad drivers making poor decisions on lane changes and following distance. A poorly-timed pump on the brakes can send a building pressure cascade through the following traffic that could snarl up a highway for hours. Intelligent traffic systems would eliminate that, as well as most of the accidents that is the other major reason for traffic jams.