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The Driving Factor

Haven’t been here for awhile.  Brain tired, not sure why, and spend most of my free hours playing with trains (insert long explanation here).

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about self-driving cars.  Google and others are trying to perfect the idea.

You can see the future: climb in the car, tell it to take you to work, then sit back and read until the motion stops.  In a city, you wouldn’t even need own a car, there would be fleets of automated taxis, just push a button on your phone and one stops in front of you within a minute.  Cross-country trips would take less of a toll on your mental health, assuming fuel costs are low, and you could even sleep through the trip; New York to Los Angeles in two days.  Accidents would be rare, traffic better (because these beasties can drive safely at high speed, bumper to bumper), along with the lower pollution that comes with more efficient roadways.  Please read the many articles coming out on this subject – some of what they are demonstrating is truly amazing.

Yet I have a problem with this future.  No, it really sounds great, especially for those of us approaching our Golden Years.  Having a car that can drive us around sounds really good.

The problem is, I do not see a path to this future.  At some point, along the path, there will be the halfway automatic car.  First there will be a version of Cruise Control Plus, able to take over in controlled conditions, like freeways, but not really safe on the streets with driveways and pedestrians and kids playing stick ball.  Then there will be the better and better versions that can handle more and more of the load.  Then there will be the version that can handle every possible scenario – until it can’t and those stories will make national headlines, but by then the buy-in will be such that people will still use and trust their cars, just like they get on planes today.  Finally, they will produce the fully automatic car, one without any manual controls, just get in it and tell it where to go.  Of course, the jokes just write themselves, like the call to tech support because the car won’t move and they tell you to – wait for it! – close all your windows and open them again.

But to get to all this, you need to get through that first step, the Cruise Control Plus.  How is that going to happen?  Don’t know what I mean?  Imagine this conversation on the sales lot:

Salesman:  Of course, this wonderful car comes with the latest version of Cruise Control Plus.  Just get it out on the freeway and let it drive itself.

Prospect:  But I could still drive it myself, right?

Salesman:  Of course, sir.  But why would you want to?

Prospect:  Uh, well, how fast would it go?

Salesman:  The posted speed limit, of course.

Prospect:  The posted limit!  But nobody drives the posted limit.  Why can’t I set it faster?

Salesman:  Well, we’d love to, sir, but there are liability issues, you understand.

Prospect:  But I can set my current cruise control over the limit?

Salesman:  Yes you can, but that is a choice you make yourself; you are still in control of the car.  If CCP is driving, it has to obey the local limits, because it is in total control, or so the insurance companies tell us.

Prospect:  So I am going to be letting this car drive me around, while everyone else buzzes past me?

Salesman:  Well, you can read a book.  You probably wouldn’t notice.  Or care.

Prospect:  Oh, I’d care.  I don’t want to sit in a car and read, I want to get to work on time.  I want to do so as quickly as possible.  So why can’t I set the speed up, like I do right now?

Salesman:  Because CCP determines its speed from the road signs or from highway department transponders.

Prospect:  And you won’t let me juice that speed up a little?

Salesman:  Even if we did, I doubt we could let you do that any further than the next road sign or transponder.  The system is made to drive itself and respond to changes in speed limits, traffic, and weather.

Prospect:  Including construction zones?

Salesman:  Of course.

Prospect:  But nobody obeys construction zone limits!  Not when there aren’t workers present!

Salesman:  Maybe, sir, but you know, safety first!

Prospect:  Safety first.  I suppose I wouldn’t be able to get up on the tail of the guy who refuses to get out of the left lane and let people by, too?

Salesman:  Of course not!  The CCP would probably get closer than you safely could, because it can respond faster, but it isn’t designed to intimidate other drivers.

Prospect:  No?  How did you get to work today?

Salesman:  I drove.  I don’t have CCP.

Prospect:  Did you speed?

Salesman:  Um, maybe a little.

Prospect:  Did everybody else speed?

Salesman:  Um…  Probably.

Prospect:  So you want me to be the guy driving fifty-five in the slow lane?  With the Mack truck right behind me?

Salesman:  Well of course not, but…

Prospect:  Never mind!  What else do you have?  Maybe something a little sporty?  With a manual transmission?

This is going to be a real problem for the car companies.  Fourth-generation commuters simply won’t stand for it.  They will want to find a way to be flexible on the speed, but the lawyers will never let them.

Categories: Technology, Trends
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