We already know the what: Coming in the near future are driverless, fully autonomous automobiles. We know the where and the when, too: not on Mars or Krypton but right here on Mother Earth, possibly as soon as 2021 if you believe some optimistic auto execs. But what we don’t know yet—scratch that, what I don’t know yet—is the how and the why. How, I keep asking myself, are fully autonomous vehicles going to take over our streets? What’s more, why are they coming at all?
Let’s consider the how question first. Mind you, I’m already done with wondering how the world’s automakers and tech giants are going to overcome the staggering technological hurdles involved. Sure, there might be a few initial teething problems with the extraordinarily complex hardware, software, and infrastructure needed to replace humans with microchips at the wheel. But from the early autonomous prototypes I’ve seen so far, which can already operate at Level 5—the most advanced tier of vehicle autonomy—in controlled conditions, I’m confident 21st-century engineers and scientists will eventually be able to bring fully functional, reliable, and safe driverless cars to our roads. Until then, please allow me to stand aside and let someone else take Fully Autonomous Ride No. 1.
What remains a mystery to me, though, is how Level 5 automobiles are going to merge into the mainstream—and the fast lane. That’s because until autonomous cars presumably one day replace human-driven cars completely, the two are going to coexist. And that scenario—humans and robots competing for the same stretch of asphalt—sounds about as warm and friendly as the official unveiling of ED-209 in “RoboCop.”
You see, Level 5 cars, by design, will be polite, careful, and predictable. The complete opposite, in other words, of human drivers. Picture a Level 5 automobile arriving at a busy four-way stop. In an instant, the autonomous car’s sensors will have deter-mined its arrival time at the stop sign versus those of the other cars at the three other stop signs. The computer will determine, say, “You are second in line to go.” And after the first car leaves, the Level 5 car will take its rightful turn and begin to move. But it won’t get far. Once Level 5 cars become a reality, it will take human drivers all of five minutes to figure out how they work. And from that moment, autonomous cars will be toast.
As soon as the robot-driven car begins to move past the stop sign, a human driver will jump ahead into the intersection—knowing full well the Level 5 car is programmed to play nice and prevent a crash at all costs. And then the next human-driven car will leap out and the next and the next and the next. Maybe in five hours—but possibly not until, oh, 2029—traffic will clear enough for the Level 5 car to move forward without a human-guided vehicle in its path. And if you think that’s bad, wait until an early Level 5 car tries to merge into the wall of weaponized steel that is a human-centric rush hour on something such as California’s terminally overcrowded Interstate 405. Freeway designers might want to start thinking about adding special “forever-on ramps” for all the Level 5 cars that won’t be going any farther.
Has a younger generation been so poorly instructed in the joys of motoring that it would rather spend money on a mobile phone with a killer selfie camera?
Once they’re perfected, Level 5 cars will be extraordinarily safe. They’ll likely crash into each other about as often as Broadway hosts a production of “King Lear” starring Adam Sandler. Trouble is, we are going to crash into them. A lot. We’ll be busy talking to the hologram on our smartphone when … wham! “What the … ? Oh, hell! You’re not going to believe this, Alice! One of those damn goody-goody Level 5ers in front of me actually stopped for a flashing-red busload of kids, so of course I hit it! The nerve of that insolent heap of malware!”
I wonder what’s going to happen after a human driver crashes into an autonomous car. I mean, you won’t get out and argue with the thing because, aside from the fact there will be no one to argue with, there’s a 99.9 percent certainty you’re the one at fault. Besides, the autonomous car you’ve just hit might be equipped with the optional Road Rage package and simply Taser you while calling the cops. You might be tempted to simply drive away, but even if the Level 5 car is too badly damaged to chase you, there’s an excellent chance it already photographed you and your car’s plate, sent the information to Google and the NSA, and logged (a) your full name and address, (b) your place of employment and your annual salary, and (c) your screen name on AshleyMadison.com. By the time you limp home, an email from CyberUber will be waiting with the subject line, “Let’s Talk, Or We Go To Twitter.”
So, yes, I’ll be curious indeed to watch in the years ahead as the how works itself out. In the meantime, I’m left wondering why we’re even having this conversation about autonomous vehicles. After all, do we really want to hand over one of our greatest modern freedoms—and, as car enthusiasts, one of our greatest pleasures—to a passionless robot just so we can go places without being ticketed for playing Candy Crush? Has the act of driving morphed from a rite of passage and a perk of adulthood into nothing more than a chore? Has a younger generation been so poorly instructed in the joys of motoring—learning to master a large and powerful machine, pointing it to wherever one desires—that it would rather spend money on an Xbox and a mobile phone with a killer selfie camera?
It’s sad but true: According to a University of Michigan study, 79 percent of people between the ages of 20 and 24 had a driver’s license in 2011, compared with 92 percent in 1983. That same study showed that, among the U.S. population of those age 18 to 39, 37 percent said they didn’t have a driver’s license because they were “too busy.” Translation: Social media and virtual reality are slowly replacing wind in the face and the revelry of accelerating toward a distant horizon amid the thrum of tires on tarmac, the throb of an engine making pace, a passing landscape always turning and unpredictable and alive.
Ultimately, the why of autonomous cars is because, as a species, we humans have proven we don’t care enough to drive as well as Level 5s will, and in fact by growing numbers we would simply rather not drive at all. The losers are enthusiasts like you and me. I shudder to think of the day, years from now, when we climb into an auto-pod and tell the robot, “Take me on a drive, anywhere. Make my senses stir.” Because no matter what your name is, it’s going to reply, “I can’t do that, Dave.”