There is a scene in the 1993 Sci-Fi movie Demolition Man where Sandra Bullock commands “Auto drive!” and her electric car takes over and easily drives itself down the highways of the future. Although this action film is largely forgettable, the autonomous car scenes offer a look at the future, and it’s a lot closer than predicted.
Autonomous, self-driving vehicles have been coming for a long time, with automakers experimenting with them for the past several decades. Just 15 years ago, the US military had autonomous Humvees rolling through the dessert trying to avoid telephone poles and large rocks. Results were mixed. Most of the trucks were unable to finish a 30 mile course, even crawling along at 5 miles per hour.
Drone technology has come a long way, as have civilian safety systems. Within the last 10 years, active systems such as electronic stability control, emergency brake assist and adaptive cruise control have been taking over certain driver duties. With the prevalence of electronically assisted parking, GPS, and lane departure warnings, all the systems needed for an autonomous vehicle have fully evolved. With electronic throttle control (“drive-by-wire”) and steering, the computer can easily manipulate the direction and speed, compared to older cars with physical-only connections to the myriad systems.
Self-driving cars gained quite a bit of credibility when tech giant Google stepped into the ring. Google dropped a ton of money to convert a fleet of Priuses, and drove them around California for 300,000 miles. While there was one accident in 2011, it turned out to be the fault of the other car making a mistake and hitting the Google car. Human error wrecked the self-driving car.
This brings up one of the massive benefits to autonomous cars: safety. Most drivers only initially see the benefits of being able to sleep, shave, or check Facebook while on the drive, but without driver errors, cars should be able to drive accident free. This would reduce insurance rates, and the path and speed could be optimized for fuel efficiency, resulting in more savings. Also, the speed of congested areas like LA, should increase as efficiency and logic take the place of impatience and road rage.
Cadillac is promising its “super cruise” system on models very soon, with Lexus and other luxury marques expected to release similar systems as soon as 2015. These initial programs will only work on the highway, but within a few years will be available for urban traffic. Tesla’s Elon Musk promised Tesla would be first to have a fully autonomous car, and history has shown it’s not a good idea to bet against him.
Is the future here? Would you buy an autonomous car?