Monday, December 26, 2011

Auto Drive Cars - why they'll never happen

A few weeks ago at lunch, one of my colleagues made a remark that sparked off a heated conversation. He said "I can't wait for auto drive cars to get here". Another colleague backed up this sentiment so I waded in with my big wooden oar and asked what possible benefit they could see from a car that drives itself. They gave me the usual answer most people come up with - they want to get from A to B but they find driving a chore. I pointed out that they could take a taxi, or public transport right now and it would give them exactly what they wanted. They could sit there sending twits or facespace updates and not have to worry about the act of driving. Now one interesting part of this debate came about when we got to the area of responsibility. The two in question are both tea-party supporters and have opined regularly about how personal responsibility seems to be a thing of the past, how people seem to ready to blame and place their own responsibilities in the hands of others (by which they mean the government). So I pointed out that auto-drive cars are the pinnacle of abandoning personal responsibility. By wanting an auto-drive car, you effectively want a computer to take responsibility for the two ton weapon you're sitting in. And this is why auto-drive cars will never happen. Our society is too litigious for this to ever come true. People will place too much faith in technology and the first time an auto-drive car mows down a child in the street, or causes a multi-car pile-up, the lawyers will get involved because the owners (you can't call them drivers at this point) will simply say "but the car should have stopped itself!"
At this point in the debate, my two colleagues, knowing I'm also an aircraft nerd, decided to try to be clever by pointing out that every time we fly, we're quite happy to let the aircraft fly on autopilot. Didn't work, obviously, because first of all, I don't own the aircraft and I'm not a pilot so I have no responsibility for the aircraft or where it goes. Being a passenger on an aircraft is akin to being a passenger in a bus or a taxi. But secondly, look up - do you see commercial airlines packed 10ft apart, nose-to-tail, wingtip to wingtip in the sky? No you don't.
For auto-drive to even be vaguely feasible, the various manufacturers must first agree on a common system whereby all the cars can talk to each other and thus communicate their intentions (in the same way that collision-avoidance systems work in aircraft). That system also needs to be ultra-secure to avoid remote tampering. History has proven that competing manufacturers can almost never agree on something like this, and coupled with the lawyer issue, auto-drive cars will never happen.

Anyway - I can't imagine a more joyless world for motorists than cars that drive themselves.


Klaas said...

I wish and hope for self driving cars never to happen. I do wish for public transport to become much more efficient, automated, quicker, ever-present,... so that those not interested in driving don't have to.

... and to you all, enjoy these festive days. And a happy birthday to myself today.

Ars.Gladius said...
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Ars.Gladius said...
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Ars.Gladius said...

The other important point about the aircraft auto-pilot, is that IF there is a problem, you have a highly trained professional pilot there to take immediate control of the aircraft. They are also constantly aware of what is going on with the aircraft while they are not in control.

Unlike the "drivers" would be in the proposed auto-cars.

Wolf said...

I can see GM converting OnStar into a sort of (air) traffic control system for auto-drive cars. That would be a better system than having each auto-drive car control itself. It could send cars away from traffic jams , road works or accident sites. It could also adjust the speed of cars , so that traffic jams can't form. And move the cars to the side of the road when an emergency vehicle is passing.

But I still wouldn't want one. I can't even stand driving an automatic transmission , without setting it to tiptronic.

Kyle said...

I think auto-drive cars will very much happen. Mercedes-Benz's new S-Class for 2013 will have an auto-drive capability for heavy traffic at speeds of 20 mph or less.

Remember, cars having auto-drive does not mean that you will no longer be able to drive them on your own. It just means the car will have the feature, the capability, to drive itself if you so wish.

As for public transportion or taking a taxi, well a few things: A lot of people live in areas where there are no taxies or public transportation, and other people simply would not want to have to take a taxi or public transportation (I know I wouldn't). They want to walk outside, get into their car, and just drive (or be driven) to their destination.

Your point on the issue of personal responsibility is an interesting one and it will be interesting to see how the law develops with regards to an auto-drive feature on automobiles.

I do not think that we will ever see some utopian (i.e. statist) version of auto-drive cars, where you get into the car and you can't drive it, it only drives itself. People want to be able to drive their cars wherever they want to go if they need to, not be dependent on some computer.

Paul said...

"...sending twits or facespace updates..." nice :-)

A couple of comments on the subject, aircraft are also closely controlled and monitored by ground controllers which wouldn't be possible for cars. Also, there are two pilots in the cockpit. One is always keeping an eye on the aircraft and it's performance etc. They aren't on facespace or twitting :-)

Paul said...

And lets not forget the "unintended acceleration" debacle that Toyota had to endure. Multiply that by a hundred or even a thousand times.