There is a growing debate on the issue of autonomous, or self-driving cars (let’s call them “autocars”), as people and society begin to re-evaluate and further develop the concept of what the next generation of personal mobility technology should be. Cars are on the cusp of change, as next-generation energy, drivetrain, infotainment, and vehicle automation technology continues to expand their roles in automotive systems.
Why do we own a car?
One of the questions on autocars is one of the most fundamental to the industry, why have a car to begin with? A car represents many things to many people, depending on whether the focus is on style, power, prestige, technology, or just speed & handling. The next generation of automotive systems will enhance every aspect of the driving experience for the human driver or the autocar passenger. This means that an autocar may satisfy the needs of some completely, some partially, and some not at all. That does not mean that they will not find a significant niche in the industry, and may eventually dominate it.
What do we need from a car?
Cars for most represent the freedom of mobility, something that buses and trains can only provide to a limited extent. A personal vehicle, be it car or van or truck, is a very liberating and empowering thing. An autocar would not remove that aspect, as the personal ownership and ultimate destination control would still exist.
If driving is the reason to own a car, then an autocar can only offer limited functionality. However, those occasions when self-driving capability is needed are usually critical applications when one wants the car to take over when one is too tired or inebriated to operate the vehicle on their own.
Is safety paramount?
One of the primary benefits of an autocar, beyond the luxury of being driven around, is safety. Self-driving systems continue to improve, and already are faster and more responsive than a human driver. As people bury their noses in their smartphones and tablets, the appeal of an autocar increases as a means to keep the inattentive from behind the wheel. I have seen may a fellow driver in a neighboring car that I wished had such a system, or would at least stop texting at highway speeds.
Regulation and society
The issue of safety brings up the related issue of regulation. As much as they were resisted by industry (and the enthusiast public), the safety developments mandated over the years have significantly benefitted the driving public. Such regulation will continue to mandate safety technology as new solutions and their supporting infrastructures mature.
Self-driving capability is one such safety technology. We may see legislation in the next decade mandating self-driving functionality in cars for many reasons. It isn’t hard to see a future with a car that needs a Breathalyzer or some other sober-determining tech that blocks the human driver from operating the vehicle.