How I Envision the Future of the Autonomous Car

By Adam Savage

How might the rise of autonomous cars change the way we drive? They won't, at least not for generations.

Futurists discuss the driverless car, you say?

I got to ride in the Google self-driving car last year. It was freaking awesome. Of course it's awesome because the technology is so cool--sitting in the back seat watching the car's brain make proper decisions to merge is far out!--but it's awesome for other reasons as well.

One is the enthusiasm of the designers. These guys are doing pure research. And they're all having a blast at it. I peppered them with questions: about braking curves, traffic infrastructure communication and whether a single accident could derail the whole program like it did Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion car program.

They answered everything with raw joy and excitement, even for the things that they were still having trouble with (turns out braking is far more sensitive to weight than you'd have imagined).

Photo Credit: Google

The other reason is what these futurists are getting at; the questions that a car like this raises. I spent some time thinking through and I have some predictions:

First, the demise of auto insurance is greatly exaggerated.

Look around, we still have the occasional Model A on the road. The idea that people will give up driving their own cars, at least for the foreseeable future, is folly. People will not give up their cars easily. Even though car accidents kill around 33,000 people per year on American roads, it's not the potential safety of an autonomous car that will shift us into life as passengers, it's a generational shift that will alter the equation that car=freedom. That will take more than a few decades.

Also, as the Google guys are aware, one single crappy mis-reported mishap is all it will take to derail the entire enterprise and set it back years while it's in its infancy. Don't believe me? Read the Bucky Fuller Wiki or revisit the spurious Sudden Acceleration Syndrome mass hysteria episode that Toyota had to suffer through (and still is recovering from). This is a tenuous time for the autonomous car. Everything has to be done right if the real shift is to begin.

Photo Credit: Flickr user renespitz via Creative Commons

Here's how I see the future of the autonomous car:

I don't think we'll ever give up driving altogether. It's just too much fun. It's too tied in with our identity as a people. I think that what will happen is that there will start to be places in the world where driving your own car will be outlawed for all except police and firefighters.

These will be places like city centers--hubs of congestion. This makes copious amounts of sense to me. Imagine a downtown with no traffic, where tons of deliveries can be efficiently made and traffic taken care of by city planners at a central hub, monitoring everything and making adjustments as necessary. Holy cow, that would be awesome. Moreover, allowing a central city planning database to communicate with all the autonomous cars would allow for the easy spreading of bicycle lanes everywhere.

The rule will be: if you have a car that's not autonomous, you simply can't drive it downtown. Just like highways that prohibit trucks. That's something that I think people could accept without much controversy. The powerful parking garage lobby might object, but I can't see it holding off the march of progress indefinitely.

Photo Credit: Audi USA

The next step would be an “autonomous car lane" on the freeways, moving faster than the HOV lane.This has already been talked about a fair bit (and even tested). This might be the first ingress. I can imagine all of this, but what I can't see is “the end of auto insurance” at least for several generations. That's how long it would take for the self-driving of cars to become a novelty and the autonomous cars to become the standard.

That concludes my time as a budding futurist, but I like what I see. What do you guys think will be the future of the autonomous car?