The Automotive Future

It seems that, as of late, the automobile has gained a reputation as being a form of transportation we must surpass. The automobile isn’t fuel efficient on a per person basis compared to other modes and therefore tends to get viewed as wasteful. However, the level of freedom that the automobile gives to individuals is unsurpassed by any other form of transportation and for that reason I think future transportation developments will center on the automobile.

Virginia Postrel has a great article on the work being done in Silicon Valley to create “robocars” that drive themselves:

Now it finally seems to be happening. Google Inc.’s self- driving cars have covered more than 300,000 miles, most recently wowing the Texas Transportation Forum with a demonstration on the streets of Austin. “The remarkable thing was that it was a little unremarkable,” Coby Chase, director of the Texas Department of Transportation’s government and public affairs division, told the Dallas Morning News after his ride.

This is the right direction. At least it’s a better direction than pushing cycling, mass transit, and rail. These alternative modes of transportation are fine for some functions but simply do not offer the freedom of mobility that is necessary for people functioning in our economy today.

One comment made in the story by Brad Templeton gives an idea of where Google and others are going with robocars:

Today’s experiments, by contrast, put the smarts in the car itself. “The first rule of robocars is you do not change the infrastructure,” Templeton reminds a Singularity audience member who inquires about smart highways.

I do think that making the cars smart and not the infrastructure is the way to go. However, I also think there are some basic infrastructure improvements that can be made that will allow the robocars to truly optimize their function.

I imagine our automobile transportation system will look very similar to that shown in films like iRobot and Minority Report (coincidentally both Spielberg films). In these films the automobile was controlled by the driver until he ventured into a main thoroughfare/highway that had numerous other automobiles moving at high rates of speed. From there the car took over. The cars, now functioning as robocars on these highways, optimized safety and efficiency and speed was greatly increased. Imagine all the freedom of an automobile in terms of individual autonomy but with a lower risk of accident and shorter travel times… that is where we are going.

Our current interstate highways could easily be retrofitted with inert objects in the lanes, below the pavement, that the robocars would use for guidance. These would be “dumb” improvements but would give the robocars so much more to work with in terms of lane alignment. In addition, we’d have to guard the interstate right-of-ways from incursion far more carefully than we do today.

I think that stop-and-go city driving and residential neighborhood driving offer far too many variables to hand over the car to a computer. A human can identify the “child playing basketball in the yard adjacent to the street” scenario as a reason for caution in a way the computer can not… unless I’m drastically underestimating what the computers can do.

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