Who really wants a self-driving car?
There's lots of hype around self-driving cars; some of it sounds good, some of it sounds pie-in-the-sky and some of it sounds downright dumb
Is there anyone who isn't developing a self driving car these days? From the nerds at MIT to the geeks at Google to the gearheads at just about every car company on the planet, they all seems to be working on one. Even governments are getting on board with the idea of cars tooling around under their own guidance while you relax in your seat texting, watching a movie or knocking back a few cold ones on the way home from work. Apparently, self-driving cars will soon replace sliced bread as the great thing against which all other great things are measured.
Here’s a question, though: who really wants a self-driving car? I’m probably in the minority on this, but nothing I’ve read yet has gotten me excited about autonomous vehicles.
However, before coming to a conclusion, let’s look at it a bit more closely. It turns out that not all self-driving cars are being developed equally. Far as I can tell, the autonomous vehicle technology currently in development falls into one of three broad categories:
1. Fully autonomous cars
Image credit: REUTERS/Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout
This is what first comes to mind when most people hear “self-driving car”: a car that does all the driving. This is basically what Google is working on, a car that operates itself using an assortment of devices and technologies to figure out where it is and how to get where it’s going. CEO Sergey Brin says that such cars will be “far safer” (since they won’t fall asleep or drive drunk) and will reduce road congestion (since they’ll be able to drive closer together on the highway). Google is already test driving its car on the streets and Brin feels they’ll be available to everyone in 5 years.
I don’t like this idea, first off, because I like to drive and be in control. While autonomous cars may be safer than your average driver, they’ll still never be foolproof, and, of course, even software and systems designed by our best and brightest minds can still have fatal bugs. Plus, even though it sounds like states will require a licensed driver to be ready to take over if need be, how much more distracted will people be once they get used to the car driving itself? Will people really be ready to take the wheel quickly enough in case of trouble? All in all, this seems pie-in-the-sky and reminds me of the predictions about a decade ago that we’d all be using Segways by now.
2. Self-parking cars
A number of efforts in the self-driving car realm are aimed at developing a car that will be able to park itself. Both Audi and Nissan, among others, are working on such cars. The idea is that, once you drive yourself to your destination, you’ll be able to get out of your car, push a button (usually via a smartphone app) and the car will drive off on its own, find a space or garage, and park itself. It will then return to you when you summon it. No more circling the block or parallel parking. Sounds good, right?
Not to me, it doesn’t. I guess I’m a control freak, but I would prefer to park my car myself and, truth be told, I like to parallel park. Will these cars choose to park in a 30 minute space while I’m planning on a relaxing one hour+ long meal? Will my car be smart enough to follow the guy with shopping bag and car keys in his hand to his car and wait for his space or will it just park in the nearest (and most expensive) garage? Again, I’m probably in the minority here, but this seems like a dumb idea.
3. Semi-autonomous cars
A number of self-driving car initiatives are really about improving safety by making the car more aware of its surroundings. These are really more aptly described as semi-autonomous cars, since they would often give the driver the option of letting the car take control in certain (e.g., potentially unsafe) situations. Both Toyota and Cadillac are working on such vehicles, as are researchers in the U.K. developing the RobotCar.
Now we’re talking. I’m all for improving safety, while still being able to drive the car. While I may still not want to give up control of the car, I’m more than fine with the car giving me a heads up, or even helping out, in dangerous conditions. If this is what we really mean by “self-driving” or autonomous cars, then, yes, I think this is definitely a good idea.
But, hey, while all these geniuses are working on making cars smarter, how about maybe forgetting the self-parking idea and coming up with cars that can do the following:
Tell my kids in the back seat to pipe down if the decibel level gets too high
Detect BS coming from a mechanic
Alert me now to the jerk who’s going to cut me off a mile down the road
Those are my two cents on self-driving cars. What about you? Are you all for autonomous or even self-parking cars? Are there other smart features you’d like your car to have? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.