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Just how soon will robot drivers take the wheel?

September 20, 2011 - 12:34 PM
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Machines will guide us. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Associated Press presents a story out of Berlin today that raises the question — when will robots take the wheel in our cars? The onset of automated driving seems more or less inevitable, despite many metaphorical road blocks that will complicate the path toward what the AP calls the "driverless car."

According to the AP:

"There's a big trend for completely computer-controlled cars — many companies and research centers in several countries are working on it and it is hard to say, who's got the most-developed vehicle at the moment," Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor for automotive economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Dudenhoeffer estimated that with the technology advances, it could only take another decade for the fully automatic cars to start becoming available for consumers. "Even today's cars are often partially computer-controlled, for example when it comes to parking or emergency brakes."

Another researcher suspects that it'll be more like 30 to 40 years before this driverless car would be available. In Germany, the researchers' test models have already hit the road.

I'm curious about many of the implications of this coming change, including some the AP touches on (such as who's liable in an accident). I suspect that these robot drivers will actually help ease the congestion that's overtaken our big, growing cities, guided by smart, GPS-oriented technology that can decipher what routes will crowd the fewest roads. D.C. certainly would benefit from less congestion during its rush hours, as any local driver can attest. Bill Ford sees this location-based telematics equipment as part of the grand congestion solution over the next half century.

But what about the culture of driving? That's where I see the biggest and saddest shift.

Technology has changed quickly in recent centuries, and as a particular type of technology becomes obsolete, its expiration signals the end of entire cultures, skills, and eccentricities that have come to accompany it.

The 20th century has, in many ways, been the century of the automobile, and a large part of what the automobile means translates into the driver taking charge of the wheel. You have the tradition of driving lessons as a teenager, the tire-screeching road races of Rebel Without a Cause, the countless incidences of road rage and driver etiquette that come from controlling a car and having to navigate streets, find parking spots, and safely stay cool in adverse conditions.

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Beyond that, the car has a sense of identity that ties directly into the notion that the driver is the one guiding the car. Novelist Steven King even imagines cars coming demonically to life in his tale Christine. There's a personality to the form of commute and a passion. Would that remain so prominent once robots are the ones guiding the road?

Think of the other elements we may lose: people revving their engines in a show of bravado; the way a sweet and slightly awkward first-date conversation unfolds when one half of the couple has eyes locked on the road; the rite of passage learning to drive is for a young teenager; the way our driver's licenses have become ID cards, required at any bar for a young person needing to announce their age; the way insurance companies calculate driver risk and the nature of auto insurance more generally; the scary power and dread of the DMV.  

Naturally, these technology-based skills like driving always disappear as systems evolve. How many people can successfully use a stick shift now compared to 30 or 50 years ago? The loss of the skill is fine, ultimately, but for those who have lived that culture, the idea of is eventual demise is sad. It's a preemptive form of nostalgia rather than any sense of Luddism. I see similarities with what's been happening with our nations' airline pilots, who have increasingly relied on automatic flight controls in recent years. "Are Pilots Forgetting How to Fly?" an August 31 ABC headline asks. Eventually drivers will likely forget how to drive in just this same fashion.

 What bits of culture will we lose in the process?

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