In the very near future, cars will be able to pilot themselves. Long-distance commuters with 90-plus minutes to kill will be able to catch up on their reading, and the scourges of drunk driving as well as texting while driving will be problems of the past. While the concept of the self-driving car sounds like something from the imaginary future, right next to robot maids and hover boards, it’s apparently an idea that carmakers are dead serious about. And according to Cadillac’s spokesman David Caldwell, it just might be on the market before the year 2020.
Skeptical? Don’t be. Consider the fact that a number of car manufacturers have already implemented collision avoidance technologies to automatically brake for pedestrians. Also for your consideration, Google has been piloting self-driven cars on the roads for years. We’re not just talking about test runs on factory floors or around heavily controlled racetracks, either. Google’s self-driven cars — mostly Priuses with the Lexus RX450h just joining the fleet — have been spotted on freeways since 2009 and have logged more than 300,000 miles of travel. Although the majority of these joyrides have taken place with someone at-the-ready behind the wheel, a small percentage have been piloted with no passengers on board at all. In all that time and all those miles, there’s been only one accident, and that was when another driver rear-ended the Google car.
Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, recently announced that discussions to put the technology into mass production have already been tossed back and forth with all of the major carmakers. According to Schmidt, the biggest hurdle to overcome has nothing to do with technology, but with the possible resistance of individual states to give approval for the mass use of self-piloted cars.
Meanwhile, Ford is already busy working on something they’re calling “Traffic Jam Assist,” which drivers will be able to engage as a way of better coping with bottleneck stress and clutch-leg agony. According to Ford, “Traffic Jam Assist” is only five years from full-scale availability.
Ford isn’t the only carmaker getting in on the act. Audi also has similar plans on paper for what they’re calling “Traffic Jam Assistant.” Cadillac is calling its version “Super Cruise,” while Mercedes-Benz has chosen “Advanced Driving Assist” as its moniker of choice. Whatever you call it, it’s looking more and more likely that someday soon, we might all be able to slide behind the wheel of our vehicles, punch in a destination, and stare off into space while our cars deliver us to our pre-programmed targets.
The one thing nobody’s really talking about is the very thing that’s likely to put the kibosh on universal acceptance of something that is a uniquely sci-fi concept: Americans love their cars. What’s more, they love to drive them. If you want proof of that, pay close attention to a car commercial where a “professional driver” zooms the vehicle in question around a “closed course.” Doesn’t that look fun?
Schmidt, on the other hand, seems to think that the day of the true automatic car is inevitable. “Self-driving cars should become the predominant mode of transportation in our lifetime,” he said, pointing to the 35,000 deaths per year that are attributed to drunk driving as the primary motive behind the need for wide scale adoption of cars that drive themselves and actually communicate with one another to avoid collisions.
So considering self-driving cars are a matter of “when” and not “if”, the one question to ponder is: where will traffic police and insurance companies earn their money once technology has made it impossible to speed and get into fender benders?