Weekend Coffee: Bring on the Autonomous Cars!

In a previous post, I wrote about the extremely cool technology of 3D printers. Today I want to geek out about another imminent technological advance I’m even more personally excited for: the self-driving car.

This technology is exactly what it sounds like: a robotic car that senses its environment with ultrasound, radar and computer vision, automatically avoiding obstacles, obeying signs and traffic signals and following GPS routes to a programmed destination. But the transformative possibilities of this technology are far greater. If you were going to somewhere crowded like a sports game or a concert, you could have your car drop you off at your destination, drive away and park itself where more space is available, and return to pick you up when you were ready. The self-driving car could even make the concept of individual ownership obsolete: every town and city could have a fleet of circulating autonomous taxis, always ready to respond to a summons and take you wherever you want to go.

Car crashes are one of the leading causes of accidental death in the U.S., and autonomous cars have the potential to change that. Human drivers can be distracted, can fall asleep at the wheel, can drive while drunk or impaired, can fail to notice a person or another vehicle in their blind spot. A robot car will never have any of those problems. Even in the best case, a human being’s response time is some large fraction of a second, during which a car traveling at 50 or 60 mph will have moved hundreds of feet, not nearly enough time to avoid a sudden obstacle like a child running into the road. A robot car will be able to detect and respond to a danger like this in milliseconds.

As amazing and futuristic as it sounds, this is a technology that’s making its way onto the market right now. The U.S. defense agency DARPA has held a “Grand Challenge” for several years, where competing teams built robot vehicles that had to navigate a course in off-road and urban environments. Google has been quietly testing self-driving cars for some time, and has persuaded California and Nevada to legalize them. Some luxury cars already on the market can parallel park themselves, drive themselves in traffic jams and even drive themselves on highways with adaptive cruise control.

I’ve always thought that driving was a tedious chore, especially in traffic or on long trips, and I can’t wait to own a car that will do the work for me. So far, most autonomous cars require a person sitting behind the wheel to take control if a hazard occurs, but once the technology is well-established, I expect it will be possible for the passengers to read or sleep. The legal obstacles will almost certainly prove more difficult than the technological ones, but I have no doubt that they’ll be surmounted. The future is coming, and it’ll be here sooner than we think!

Image: A Google self-driving car. Picture by Steve Jurvetson, released under CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.ceetar.com/gvny Ceetar

    You just know when these eventually become available there will be some awesome stories about them getting caught one-way street loop in downtown Manhattan.

    And just think, you won’t need a getaway driver for bank heists anymore. You can just have the car circle non-suspiciously. I wonder if there will be a “evasive maneuvers!” setting?

  • http://terracognition.wordpress.com TerraCognition

    Great article. The possibilities of the autonomous car sound fascinating!

    I agree that the legal obstacles to the adoption of these cars will be more difficult than the technological ones. In a car accident between two autonomous cars, who becomes responsible? Is it the fault of the drivers, auto manufacturers or the companies who create the car’s navigation/sensor systems?

  • Bdole

    But…but…this isn’t about ATHEISM!
    “I expect it will be possible for the passengers to read or sleep. ”
    Bah, I do that now. The others tend to just get out of your way. It’s the barrier walls you have to worry about.

  • Riccardo

    Can’t wait for this. I HATE driving.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/?m=0 Steve Bowen

    Well Adam, there’s now two things on which we disagree; moral realism and autonomous cars. Personally I enjoy driving (especially as in the UK a stickshift is the norm). Sure the technology is cool, but where’s the exitement in being a passenger to a robot driver?

  • Patterrssonn

    I would love a self driving car. I have a 40 min commute to work, which gets pretty damn tiring. Not to mention there’s a retirement community along the way, which means in winter there’s inevitably someone ahead of me in a Lincoln doing 10-20k under the limit whenever there’s snow on the ground. With an SD car I’d be too relaxed to care, I’d just peer over my magazine “hmm Navigator” then go back to the article. Would miss the stick shift though.

  • L.Long

    How Old are You?? Over 25? You’ll be dead by the time these things get generally available.
    Also ever read any of Asimov’s stories about the 3Laws???
    There will be some fairly weird things that will happen to the cars that will require manual override.
    We still don’t even have an electric car that is good enough to use for all occasions, so these cars will have to be some form of fuel car made to do everything we do now cuz there is no way I could afford 2 cars. And the SD cars will have to contain a multi-media computer that would make today’s top of the line gaming ones look slow and cheap.
    Well someone has to be negative!

  • anna

    If this works, it will be great for blind people and people with other disabilities that prevent them from driving.

  • Azkyroth

    Well Adam, there’s now two things on which we disagree; moral realism and autonomous cars. Personally I enjoy driving (especially as in the UK a stickshift is the norm). Sure the technology is cool, but where’s the exitement in being a passenger to a robot driver?

    I can see myself being a late adopter of such a technology, but given how many people on the road can’t be bothered to pay more than rather less than the minimum amount of attention needed to drive reasonably, successfully, and courteously (seriously, I want a speaker system on my car that plays “GREEN MEANS GO!” at blue-whale-call volume at the push of a button), I hope it’ll be embraced and make driving a much less miserable experience for the 5% of us who have a destination and a desire to reach it at some point.

  • Patterrssonn

    The technology for these things already exists, as printed out the main barrier will be legal. However as driverless vehicles would save companies like Walmart a lot of money, I imagine our politicians and their lawyers will be working overtime to come up with a solution.

  • http://basarica.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/unde-s-a-retras-vocalistul-de-la-iris/ Alvin Powell

    The second slight niggle feels even more uncomfortable and therefore even more fundamental. For it concerns the fun part of driving. While some have conjectured that if you don’t have to drive your car, you can therefore have more time to search Google for pottery or pornography, I am concerned that your Googlized Prius removes your ability to, well, drive.

  • Greg G

    Nit: Sixty miles per hour is eighty-eight feet per second, somewhat less than hundreds of feet traveled in a fraction of a second unless the numerator is greater than the denominator.

    But will these autonomous cars have autonomous drag races and drifting? I hope the autonomous cab driver isn’t like the one in the original Total Recall.

  • fwtbc

    Well Adam, there’s now two things on which we disagree; moral realism and autonomous cars. Personally I enjoy driving (especially as in the UK a stickshift is the norm). Sure the technology is cool, but where’s the exitement in being a passenger to a robot driver?

    Given I have a disability that prevents me from driving, I’d find the idea of a robot car that will obey my every wish and give me the mobility that I would otherwise have to be monumentally exciting.

    Please check your privilege before disparaging things just because they’re of no interest or value to you.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    Fair point, I hadn’t considered it from that angle.
    I don’t have a problem with them btw, it’s just that I wouldn’t want one as things stand. If I were in your position, I’m sure I would.

  • smrnda

    I’m also disabled and cannot drive, and this would be a huge plus for me – I would go out and buy a nice, big self-driving van and never need to worry about how to get stuff from one point to another again.

    There will always be some bugs to work out, but drivers get ‘stuck’ driving around one way streets when they don’t pay attention as well – plus, machine learning and genetic algorithms mean computers can ‘learn’ from their mistakes pretty quickly.

  • Ryan

    Sleeping while your car drives itself-technology ever working hard to serve our laziness :p

  • Korey Peters

    I think that the rise of robot cars will change our civilization for the better in ways we can’t possibly imagine. In the fullness of time, I believe only the Internet will have a greater effect on modern culture.

    I have 2 kids under 5, and I hope to live in a world where they will never learn to drive.

  • Azkyroth

    I have 2 kids under 5, and I hope to live in a world where they will never learn to drive.

    You won’t. Technology is one thing, but there’s no cure for “WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE” on the horizon. I mean, my daughter’s in 3rd grade now and they still waste kids’ time with cursive,

  • thorarin

    Not to nitpick or anything, but 60 mph = 88 ft/sec, not hundreds of feet per large fraction of a second. I did the math on the drive home after a sneezing fit the other night trying to estimate how far I drove effectively blind during a sneeze. Another good reason for cars that can steer themselves.

  • Daniel McHugh

    I actually enjoy driving… up to a point. As long as the traffic isn’t heavy and I’m not doing an epic journey of automotive ennui (more than 2 hours’ drive), it’s actually relaxing. If I had an automated car I think I’d go nuts without something to do while I waited to arrive. I love the DOING of driving.

    On the other hand, I’ve lost members of my family to exactly the kind of careless, stupid accidents that automated cars have the potential to eliminate. I am the only licensed driver I know who’s never had either an accident or a ticket or both; a few of my friends have had more than one accident where their car was totaled (one was at fault, the other wasn’t) and they’re pretty lucky to still be alive. As much as I’d complain about not being allowed to drive anymore, this is just one of those times I’d accept the inconvenience to make things better overall- this is coming from someone who hates electric locks and windows, and never uses cruise control. Don’t suppose I’d be able to get a robocar with crank-downs…

  • Alejandro

    I also hate driving, and agree that this technology can’t come quickly enough.

    Maybe speaking very long term, it would be illegal to drive the car yourself, since at some point this technology would be so perfect that it would be much more dangerous to let a person drive!