Sometimes it helps to zoom out and view the bigger picture. If the manual vs. paddles debate is a mere scuffle, driverless cars represent global holy war for driving enthusiasts. If self-driving cars become commonplace will drivers be staring into the same abyss as their carriage-pulling forebears?
In a recent conversation with my dad I explained that someday soon we will exist merely as passengers being idly transported by robotic machines. He scoffed at the idea, brushing it off as if I told him time-travel is just around the corner. This lead me to outline two points to him. One, he has become rather old, and two, that technological capability will not be the factor that will hold back driverless vehicles. At the time of writing this article the Google driverless fleet has racked up over 700,000 miles testing on public roads. The only accidents that have occurred have been the result of puny human brains miscalculating common tasks, not computer error. Further, this technology is so reliable that California, Nevada, and Florida have passed legislation allowing for its testing on public roads. If anything is going to impede this paradigm shift it will be social, political, or business related, not technological.
The above factors deserve an article in their own right yet my personal contention is that driverless technology will ultimately come to the fore. It is simply too powerful a technology to hold back. Governments will get behind it for the vast savings in health care, transportation, and traffic enforcement. Auto companies will adapt by approaching the car in non-traditional ways. And commuters will enjoy a new level of safety while mindlessly thumbing their smartphones for hours more per week, perhaps conforming to the Wall-E lifestyle. But what does this mean for traditional drivers cars? I hope I'm not alone in thinking a digitally chauffeured 911 is a terrible idea. And ultimately, what will happen to drivers themselves?
For the purpose of speculation lets make the fairly realistic assumption this technology proliferates. Under this assumption I have thought about the issue in two ways: short-term and long-term. Observing the topic through this lens grants one the freedom to contemplate and ultimately realize that both cars and driving will fundamentally change over the next 30-40 years. This is my attempt to peer into a driverless future.
2020, or thereabouts, is the year both Google and Nissan expect to see driverless technology come to market. In this year, self-driving cars will initially be at the very fringe of the industry, catering to tech-obsessed early adopters eager to impress friends with the latest gadgetry. Prior to this breakthrough the market will have already accepted self-parking, GPS enabled, radar cruise-control guided, voice activated, sensor ridden machines thus making the move to driverless more step than leap. At this point driving enthusiasts likely won't be losing sleep as the majority of consumers still wonder about the reliability of the technology and if it can realistically replace humans behind the wheel. However, I believe a drastic shift will occur about five years after driverless genesis. It will prove to be so remarkably efficient, safe, and reliable that the original naysayers will begin flocking to it by the hordes. They will sacrifice their independence and hail their new robotic overlords.
Manufacturers will embrace the trend as the technology is adopted in huge numbers resulting in a tipping point. While the earliest emergence of the system was tethered to a single affordable vehicle it has now multiplied, seeking out every corner of the market. Yet at this point sports car drivers should not worry as the system is fully defeatable and driverless mode is optional on all roads. I believe some sports cars manufacturers will offer the technology but it will merely be an attempt to keep pace with the rest of the industry rather than the focal point of their creations. It is not until we set our sights on the long term that we see fundamental changes to driving and drivers cars themselves.
A silent, gray, barren, dystopic wasteland awaits drivers about 30 years into the future. Okay, perhaps such a dismal portrait of the future is overblown, though I do believe this world to be inherently different than our own in terms of personal transportation. The early decades of this technology will cause a sharp decrease in traffic fatalities, emissions, fuel consumption, and overall cost to the consumer while simultaneously spiking travel efficiency and commuting pleasure. Self-driving vehicles are so clearly the best choice for the vast majority that the infrastructure has now changed. Zones within cities and freeways mandate that all cars be in driverless mode at all times in the name of safety. This organizational system allows vehicles to move uniformly in 'platoons', essentially eliminating traffic accidents. As nearly all commuters travel solely within these zones and no longer wish to pilot vehicles themselves, the car can now begin to break the mold of the classic automobile template. Bumpers, mirrors, headlights, taillights, crash zones, and standard control layouts will all either disappear or be completely overhauled as they are no longer necessary. Automobile design itself will radically evolve. Personal entertainment venues will emerge. Circular pods with luxurious seating, perpetually connected to the Internet, will offer passengers comfort and entertainment previously only enjoyed at home. Other vehicles will cater to business people who demand constant connection and workspace. Some will allow passengers to fully lay down and sleep. There are numerous possibilities to imagine when considering long term potential but to believe the automobile will not fundamentally change is a mistake in my opinion. Of course, this begs the question, will enthusiasts be left to dwell a driverless Earth, eternally recreating driving purely in the mind? And will sports cars also exist solely in the imagination?
Yes and no. Given the fact that today's youth are less interested in cars than any previous generation I believe sports cars may be a dying breed. Combine this with the notion of future driverless zones, automobile design breaking the mold, and generally a mass indifference to driving and I believe that drivers cars will eventually be relegated to the absolute fringe of the market. Sports car manufacturers will need to maintain the current template which requires components catering to safety, control, driver involvement and pleasure. Powerful engines, tactile transmissions, and other parts associated with drivers cars will be increasingly expensive to fabricate and maintain once a driverless future is embraced. Couple such costs with an increasingly limited market and sports cars may be reserved exclusively for the wealthy elite in the future. One may raise the possibility of sports cars as they exist today with the added benefit of a defeatable driverless system. While I see this working in the early years I simply do not think it can exist in the long term. There will be little reason for consumers to purchase cramped sports cars with antiquated designs that are required to be in driverless mode during almost all situations. Foregoing all of the amenities offered by the completely driverless counterpart for the rare back road driving experience seems to be a choice few would make. Admittedly, it is a somewhat depressing future for driving enthusiasts.
Based on my own reading on the driverless concept I truly believe this is a future we may be heading towards. As someone eager to witness the world of tomorrow a part of me is exuberant toward such possibilities. Yet the sports car aficionado within me is saddened to think distant future generations may miss out on the love affair that is driving. As we are at the very doorstep of this technology I am sure there are numerous interpretations of the future it may lead to and my own is but one consideration. If you envision a bright, romantic, driver-friendly future on the horizon please share it in the comments below!