Fully automated vehicles promise to reduce accidents and save drivers time and money, but their long-awaited arrival may not be good news for all
Author Boyd Farrow
THREE DECADES AGO, driverless cars were everywhere. Among the most popular novels (and films) of 1983 was Stephen King’s Christine, about a malevolent Plymouth on a hit-and-run spree. One of the best-loved TV shows was “Knight Rider,” in which a big-haired David Hasselhoff teamed up with an opinionated Trans Am to fight crime.
Then, poof: Self-driven cars went the way of the jet pack and the robot maid—an absorbing fiction, but little more.
Now, however, the fantasy seems about to be realized. “It’s really happening. All car companies are investing lots of money in this,” says John Leech, U.K. head of automotive for accounting giant KPMG. “The technology is here now—automatic braking, cruise control and lane centering are available. The next stage is getting total mobile Internet connectivity to join up all the sensors. We are on a gradual journey to fully automatic driving.”
Several tests have already been conducted on public roads with cars whose manual brakes and steering wheels were replaced with sensors and software enabling vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Volvo recently had four self-driving cars platooning at 53 mph along a 124-mile route near Barcelona. Engineers from German automotive supplier Continental have racked up 10,000-plus miles test-driving automated Volkswagen Passats in the U.S. and Germany. Last fall the state of California enacted legislation that paves the way for test-drives in traffic by Google’s computerized Toyota Priuses, which have been in trials in Nevada for almost a year.
A recent study by KPMG, in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research, suggests that the first cars capable of communicating with traffic infrastructure and with each other could come onto the market within five to 10 years. Indeed, the study’s authors speculated that there will be so many autonomous vehicles on the road by 2025, people stopped at traffic lights won’t do a double-take if a car pulls up and its “driver” is shaving.
Like many watershed technological developments, this one is arriving in increments. For years, automakers have been engaged in a fierce competition to offer increasingly sophisticated driver-assist features. The 2014 Mercedes S-Class, due to launch this year, boasts 26 separate sensors that can monitor traffic up to 656 feet ahead, recognize lane markings and use the vehicle in front as a positioning beacon when no lane markings are visible.
It’s not only the car companies that have a stake in this technology. The motor club federation AAA has estimated the annual cost of U.S. road accidents at about $300 billion. Traffic congestion, meanwhile, robs Americans of nearly 5 billion hours a year and costs about $100 billion in lost productivity and fuel expenses. Self-driving cars could put a significant dent in these figures, with the added benefit of increased fuel efficiency.
It is the nature of revolutions, though, for fortunes to be raised and lowered in equal number. Certainly, when this technology takes off—nobody is saying if anymore—the automotive industry will enter a period of transformation. Tech firms appear set to emerge as the big winners, as their input will no longer be confined to providing “extras”; rather, they’ll be shaping the fundamentals of the driving experience. Intel, Google and others are already sinking billions into research and development, threatening to diminish the role that traditional carmakers play in devising the vehicles of tomorrow.
Indeed, in one scenario envisioned by KPMG, major players in the data market could design a vehicle operating system and simply outsource the production of the actual vehicle to an external partner —possibly someone other than a traditional automotive manufacturer. As Larry Burns, co-author of Reinventing the Automobile, said in a presentation to the National Automobile Dealers Association in New York last year, “Incumbent players rarely do well when industries disrupt.”
There will be a knock-on effect for other players, too. Steelmakers, faced with the prospect of safer and therefore less fortified vehicles, are likely viewing developments with concern. And nobody has yet been able to fathom what all this will mean for insurance companies. Who’s at fault when two fully automated cars collide?
For the likes of you and me, automated vehicles promise to save time and money and to improve our personal safety. Moreover, who wouldn’t relish the opportunity for a nice snooze during those interminable trips to the in-laws’ place at Thanksgiving? But Leech, for all his conviction, doesn’t foresee the demise of the steering wheel and brake pedal just yet.
“For some, the whole point of driving is the actual driving,” he says. “People will carry on buying Ferraris.”
BOYD FARROW is dreading the day when someone comes up with the automated magazine columnist.
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THIS MONTH’S AMAZING FACT
If you’re looking for a detailed rundown on that meeting you missed, you’d probably do best to ask the quiet girl who sits in the corner. According to a study by Dutch scientist Camiel Beukeboom published in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, an introvert is far more likely than an extrovert to use specific descriptive language.
In the experiment, subjects described a set of photos, then returned days later to take a personality test. It turned out that among extroverts, abstract speech patterns (The boss was being mean) were far more common than concrete ones (The boss argued with the sales team). The reverse was true for introverts, who also used more numbers, articles (such as “the”) and references to specific people. That’s not to say the news is all bad for boisterous types: Researchers believe extroverts may be better at interpreting actions to draw inferences about people and situations. Anyway, happy hour is, uh, down the street. Hope you can make it. —JACQUELINE DETWILER