“The Google prototype looks more childish toy-town than a proper car, and reminiscent of the ill-fated BMW Isetta bubble car from the 1950s”
Google’s computer-driven car was a clever publicity teaser to raise its profile, but driverless cars won’t be ubiquitous for at least 10 years. When they do appear though, the world as we know it will be turned upside down. There will be many fantastic benefits, some unintended consequences, and a few scary side effects too.
The old and infirm will be liberated by computer-driven cars. The young will be able to access personal transport without needing a license to drive. Fatal accidents and insurance costs will be slashed. In Britain, ailing rural pubs will flourish again as the fear of the breathalyser vanishes. Nobody will ever again be convicted of speeding or dangerous driving. Long-distance cruising in computer controlled convoys will be much faster as the need for speed limits is removed. Huge amounts of fuel will be saved (hydrogen of course, in 10 years fuel cells will be all the rage). City congestion will be eliminated, although this might be more down to the huge cost of computerised cars, and laws to ban out-dated human-driven cars from towns. Among the unintended consequences, long-distance railroads will disappear, or rather their tracks will be adapted to take cars. Who would travel 500 miles in a train with all those people, when you could dial-up a Winnebago and be transported door to door, eating, sleeping and showering on the way?
As for scary side effects, the freedom to break speed limits isn’t much of a benefit come to think of it.
It might have made more sense to make the Google car look a bit more charismatic. The prototype looks more like a childish toy-town effort than a proper car, and reminiscent of the ill-fated BMW Isetta bubble car from the 1950s.
Mercedes more impressive
Mercedes’ demonstration at the Frankfurt Car Show last year of a computer-driven S-class limousine looked much more impressive, and didn’t immediately make you wonder how you and your family would survive if it crashed. After you get past the initial powerful, positive impression because of the Google’s technology, you will wonder how you would survive if someone crashed into it. The fact the Google said the car won’t go faster than 25 mph won’t be much reassurance, although this prototype isn’t designed for the road, just as a test bed.
Mark Curtis, Chief Client Officer at Fjord, the design consultancy, is a cheerleader for computer-driven cars.
“Personally, I’m a huge believer in driver-less cars and where this is going. We’ll see a large number in 10 years, although it would be foolish to make precise predictions. The benefits so clearly outweigh the costs for individuals and society,” Curtis said from his office in southern England.
Will people be able to get around the radical idea of travelling in a vehicle with no steering wheels or brakes?
“We regularly sit in buses, trains and planes with no control; there are shuttle trains at airports with no driver, so don’t let anyone say people aren’t prepared to relinquish control,” Curtis said.
Confused by snow
What about reports that computerised cars were confused by snow, and baffled by traffic policemen? What happens if a bird flies across the path of a car, or flies directly towards the driver?
Curtis expects the technology to eventually crack all the problems, but he does worry that certain legal problems might be harder to crack. If there is an accident involving a computerized car, the occupants are unlikely to be held responsibility, but the question remains about the ultimate responsibility.
Curtis points out that the move to computer controlled cars has been in the making for some time, from the first ABS braking systems that took control from the driver, to current systems which intervene to stop low speed traffic collisions and automatically park cars.
Late last year Morgan Stanley published its predictions on autonomous cars, predicting that before the end of the decade, these cars that can drive themselves will start to go on sale, initially costing about $10,000 extra.
“This is not a toy. The social and economic implications are enormous. Beyond the practical benefits, we estimate autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion,” Morgan Stanley said.
Most major car manufacturers are in the race with Mercedes in the lead, followed by other Germans like BMW and Volkswagen. Toyota’s Lexus is at the forefront too, but Ford is also up there and closing fast.
Morgan Stanley said suppliers like Delphi, Continental, Autoliv and TRW are spending heavily, technology companies IBM and Cisco too.
On the face of it, a Google challenge to the established auto manufacturers might seem destined to failure. But after the success of Tesla Motors in electric cars, maybe the likes of GM, VW and Toyota might be a little worried about their long-term future?