Friday, January 27, 2012

Are You Really Ready for the Cars of Tomorrow?

One hundred years ago Cadillac did something radical. They introduced a car with a self-starter. Hard to believe today that if you wanted to start a car way back when, you had to stand outside in the cold and crank it. I'm sure this wasn't a lot of fun for a young Minneapolis man on a first date when it was twenty below zero. But someone came along with an idea and decided to do something about it.

Cars have come a long way since then. But there was a time when cars didn’t have tubeless tires, or hydraulic brakes, or shock absorbers. And at one time your only choice when it came to color was black. Eventually cars began to have brain boxes, little computer chips that took care of more and more facets of your vehicle’s operation. But to be honest I’m just not sure how comfortable I am with where this is all going. I know that the people designing these cars of the future have good intentions, but…

Last summer a Pop Science article titled “How Intelligent Cars Will Make Driving Easier and Greener” caught my attention because for some reason the idea of cars doing all the thinking for us humans seems a little disconcerting to me. The article stated that not only will our cars predict what other drivers will do, they will also predict what pedestrians will do next as well. Now this month Wired magazine has a feature story that insists the next car you drive will drive itself.

Hmmm. I have a problem with this. For example, I recently spent six hours talking to tech support in India in an attempt to get our H-P computer to communicate with our H-P printer. Do I really want to be on my cell phone with a tech guy in India when my car fails to go in reverse? Or decides to drive to the Napa auto parts store when I want to go eat lasagna at Olive Garden?

That’s really not my biggest fear. What about when car thieves of the future start hacking your Camaro’s control center and drive it off to some slice and dice parts warehouse? It all just seems so weird to me.

But the honchos behind all this nigh tech fandango are committed. This past October the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems convened for five days to discuss the future of transportation in this country. These folks are earnest about the possibilities of connectedness and travel. And there are plenty of companies involved in bringing this emerging technology into the automotive field.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the article in Wired, falls all over himself in praise of Google's efforts in the development of these futuristic robotic cars. Here's one excerpt.

“The Prius begins to seem like the Platonic ideal of a driver, against which all others fall short. It can think faster than any mortal driver. It can attend to more information, react more quickly to emergencies, and keep track of more complicated routes. It never panics. It never gets angry. It never even blinks. In short, it is better than human in just about every way.”

The Wired article isn’t really about what Toyota and Ford have been doing for near two decades. They were exploring what the Google-nauts are up to, because Google seems just as invested in robotic transport systems as the old-timey players.

“While Google wants to create, in essence, computers that drive, the auto industry has been trying to make its vehicles drive more like computers. Bolstered by increasingly powerful and affordable sensors, sophisticated algorithms, and Moore’s law, the world’s carmakers have been slowly redefining what it means to be a driver, encouraging us to offload everything from shifting gears to parallel parking. The automated car isn’t just around the corner—it’s here. The more interesting question isn’t when we will let go of the wheel completely but what form and purpose the car will have when we finally do.”

I’m grateful for the many benefits technology has given us. But when you look at what it costs to fix a driver’s side door window because the electronic switch doesn’t work ($400), it starts to concern me where all this is headed.

For some reason I’m not quite ready to give up control of my steering wheel. Of course, for all we know the jet airplanes we fly on from city to city or continent to continent have only had pilots in the front to make us feel comfortable that some human is in control up there.
According to Wired, “The next generation of gearheads won’t obsess over horsepower and torque; they’ll focus on things like radar range, communication latency, and pixel resolution.” Really? Tell that to the Fast and Furious crowd. But then again, maybe I'm just an old fogey.

My next question relates to insurance. If my futuristic Ford Focus runs into a school bus and kills three kids, is Ford responsible or is it my fault because I was in the back seat with my girl friend?

Oh well… What will be will be.

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