The Future of Commuting?
The idea of a self-driving car is either viewed as a sacrilegious attempt to remove the driver from the car or the inevitable future if we continue to crowd our streets and freeways with untrained and inattentive drivers.
The original idea for the driverless car came about from DARPA (Defense Department Research Projects Agency) and their Grand Challenge which began as a distance race for autonomous vehicles in the Mojave Desert. In 2004 the first winner managed to travel a little over 7 miles. Fast forward to 2015 and several major automakers, including Tesla and Audi are engaged in development and testing on this project with California being the epicenter of this research. Even tech giant Google started testing the autonomous concept with the Lexus RX450 SUV as the base model for their modifications. While Google isn't the only one in this race, they may be the biggest surprise, given they do not make cars generally. A few other auto makers such as Nissan, Mercedes, and Ford have tested or announced plans to test autonomous vehicles as well.
Google has now moved on to test its production car; purpose built to be driven...or should we say not driven on public roads. Current testing is limited to speeds of 25mph in what Google describes as step-by-step process where new concepts will be tested in incremental upgrades. The systems used to guide these cars are simply stunning. I too have been among the doubters of this technology, but the level of data analysis used for this project is mind boggling. It’s not a car, it’s a computer on wheels.
However, I'm not convinced of this certain future because I think we are all destined to live a Blade Runner existence where we can't drive and robots blur the line between reality and fiction. Actually, it’s the opposite. The use of these vehicles may make driving more enjoyable for those of us that still prefer piloting. Currently, we drivers only use 8% of the available freeway space. Due to differential speed, distances between cars and generally poor driving we leave 92% of the road surface unused. Combine that with a lack of infrastructure investment where the number of cars on the road increases exponentially but actual road surface has only increased by 6%. Then we have to factor in the impact of impaired drivers and just bad drivers that make the road ways, according to the statistics, the place you are most likely to die. Our transportation system is reaching a point where a simple trip to work is a death defying stunt marked by oceans of traffic. This inefficient use of the roadway will not only make you late for work but is a frustrating nightmare and drag on the economy.
Why could a Google car, or any autonomous car for that matter, relieve the stress for those of us that enjoy driving? If such a vehicle could maximize the road space available in a safe and efficient manner then that leaves the roads somewhat more clear for those of us that still enjoy driving. One could commute in their self-driving car to work and back home, accomplish our mundane task of stopping for groceries or picking up the dry cleaning and then safely return home. As a society of drivers we would have to transition from being the pilot to being the commander. This process could free up precious road space and potentially allow us greater enjoyment when we are the pilot of a non-autonomous vehicle. Relax on the commute to the office on the weekday and come the weekend, hit the road for pure enjoyment. Maybe it’s the future, perhaps not, but it would be nice to think that one day the roads might be idiot proof.