Self-Driving Cars: The Future is Now

If you could take a self-driving car to work everyday, would you? Imagine it. Your car is autonomously cruising at a safe speed while a calm NPR-inspired audio assistant provides you with daily news and the weekly weather forecast. Your carpooling coworkers discuss last night’s game while they leisurely sip coffee like tourists at an Italian cafe. You politely wave to the woman cruising in the next lane as she grins sheepishly and continues applying her makeup.

They paint a pretty picture, these self-driving cars of the idyllic future. And while it may be another decade or so before self-drivers are a reality, you could be riding in one sooner than you think. According to Reuters, GM plans to mass-produce their Chevy Bolt EV’s (recently named Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year) into specially outfitted autonomous versions.

Self-Driving CarBy partnering with the ride-sharing operation Lyft, they hope to “deploy thousands of self-driving electric cars in test fleets” by 2018. And they report that GM’s challenger, Ford, has plans to carry out a similar program by 2021. Since September, Lyft’s rival Uber has been testing self-driving vehicles around Pittsburgh. And you can hardly scroll through any news app without seeing mention of the driverless programs run by Google and Tesla.

The ride-sharing platform offers an obvious jumping-off point for manufacturers looking to get in on the self-driving game. Download a free app that offers access to safe and reliable transportation for hire. Or rather shell out six figures for an autonomous vehicle. Which do you think will be easier for consumers to swallow?

This approach also gives these companies the chance to gather and apply feedback from passengers while building an actual business around self-driving cars. Beyond making a return on investments, cooperating with ride-sharing companies also helps normalize people to a world of driverless vehicles. (You mean I can have that fourth cocktail and none of my friends has to sit out as designated driver? Sign me up!)

In Motor Trend’s January edition, author Angus MacKenzie manages to sum up why self-driving cars are here to stay. “Autonomous cars are the future because most people who buy cars aren’t all that interested in driving them.” It’s sad but true. Outside of actual enthusiasts, the general public just doesn’t give a hoot about the “art” of driving. They have people to see and things to do, and driving is just a means to an end. Call it what you will but this is the future of the world we live in.

According to a 2016 New York Times article, highway fatalities have shown “the largest annual percentage increase in fifty years.” And much of that is attributable to cell phone use while driving. It’s becoming evident that convincing drivers to simply put their phones away is a fruitless endeavor. And yes, self-driving cars may seem like an extreme solution. But they open the door to a whole new (and highly profitable) world.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Autonomous CarsIn the December issue of Car and Driver, editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman shared some thoughtful insight into the new business of self-driving cars. He points out the business opportunities autonomous vehicles offer to not only auto manufacturers, but also more specifically Big Data. “Instead of … simply freezing driver cellphone activity within a moving car, the big data companies encouraged self-driving technology, sensing an opportunity to collect/deliver data from/to the occupants.”

Data mining may seem like a dull subject, but it would be naive to dismiss it. It involves more than simply extracting patterns and broad information from a user’s interaction with technology. Data mining allows companies to observe and even predict users’ behaviors. That’s a powerful tool for literally anyone trying to sell something. In a world seemingly ruled by technology, consumerism and excess, it’s only natural that these companies would gravitate in that direction. Follow the money, right?

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be some altruistic side effects of a Big Data-powered self-driving society. Cutting down traffic and traffic incidents considerably sounds pretty nice. Additionally, self-driving technology opens avenues to independence that groups like the disabled and elderly have long thought closed. Cars could communicate with one another to avoid drastic stop/start driving, conserving fuel and easing pollution. Parking congestion would be alleviated. Law enforcement could focus less on driving infractions and more on real crime. Even the underage population would benefit. Mom and Dad could send a self-driving car to pick the kids up from school next time they’re stuck at work. No buses. No carpooling.

Welcome to Tomorrowland

This insistent thirst for technology has changed the very way manufacturers think, engineer and market the cars of today (and tomorrow). Love ‘em or hate ‘em, millennials have proven that the future will be filled with instant data connectivity and social interaction. And this progressive tech is already present on the road today. We see 360 degree camera assistance, self-parking, cruise control, cross traffic alerts, and the list goes on. Do these features make driving safer and easier? Sure. Do they condition us for an environment of self-driving cars? Absolutely. Probably the biggest hurdle facing self-driving technology right now is convincing a society of drivers to give up their control. And while the consequences of an entire transportation system dictated by unfeeling robots may sound terrifying, it’s also beginning to sound like the logical next step. Therefore that seems to make it inevitable.

It’s inarguable that the invention of the automobile has had an immeasurable effect on human society. They have spread ideas, goods, services and aid in a way that simply wasn’t possible before its existence. It would be all too easy to make the same argument for the introduction of the computer, and even the smartphone. Simple logic seems to dictate that merging these two great innovations, in this case as self-driving car technology, will make these societal impacts look microscopic by comparison.

What do you think? Weigh in on the comment thread below and let us know how you feel about self-driving technology. Do you think it will help or hinder society’s advancement? What do you think it means for the future of the automotive industry?

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