Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thoughts On Driverless Cars

Back in March, my favorite tool, Randal O'Toole had apiece in the Wall Street Journal about taking the driver out of the car. By that he did not mean getting people out of their cars but just not letting them drive. Randal has long had an aversion to government or planner control of what he considers "personal freedoms", such as where we live and work or how we get between them. In his WSJ article, he clearly buys in to the belief that we can, by use of technology, create a system to allow passengers(i.e. not the drivers) to zip across the country to their destinations.
Driverless cars have so far remained the stuff of science fiction... they are finally close to reality... Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.
Most "coast to coast" travel is done by air nowadays so I doubt that Randal is speaking only of "coast to coast" travel and mainly focusing on commuting and regional travel. The commuting public is usually the group that ends up in gridlock situations. This brings up the question of when will such a system be required on even the majority of personal autos and who will enforce that requirement. My bet is that it will be government planners.

There are currently on the market several makes of autos that can self park and/or notify the driver of dangerous situations but these come with hefty price tags. Low end cars are what dominate the market these days (we are still in a recession). O'Toole mentions some experimental autos that make use of the enhanced global positioning system and how such technology would be used to allow autos to travel mere inches apart at cruising speed or higher(ala NASCAR). Have you seen the mess that makes with just one little bobble or a mechanical failure? And doesn't the government control the GPS satellites?

What would it do to the marketing of automobiles? Today they appeal to the "thrill of the open road" and the "joy of driving", if you remove the driver then all you are buying is a shiny metal box on wheels. Each one little different that the other, where is the status symbol in that? One would not be allowed to perform differently than another(that would defeat the purpose) but it could control the cost. Uh oh, there is the word again, control, Randal doesn't like that word.

Then there is the question of the speed limit or the cruising speed of normal traffic. Would you be able to switch the technology on and off depending on conditions? Would you need it on lightly used roadways? What if you wanted to take a more leisurely pace, to take in the scenery instead of whipping by at high speed? Higher throughput for the morning and evening rush hours would make for shorter commute times but does nothing for the destination storage problem nor the singularity of use insanity of auto ownership.

If we were to make this a reality AND peak oil proves to be correct, with what would we fuel these autos? Electric vehicles get up to 40 miles on an 8 hour charge, and while this may change, that is hardly sufficient for the longer, standard commute of many Central Kentuckians or the commutes of larger urban areas. This would require the non-use of the vehicle for the entire working day while it recharges, not to mention that parking lots and garages are not set up for such a thing. These things would have to be planned for, especially in government owned and operated garages. Parking spaces in shopping centers is a whole other story, can we guess how that would end?

I have no doubt that Randal's scenario could be accomplished but not without a major paradigm shift and a lot of planning. It is a lot more than a "simple software upgrade" and not without a lot of other variables being just so. If private industry is going to drive(so to speak) this driverless auto scenario, then they are coming to the table very slowly and if the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Toyota (et. al.) recalls are any indication, then I don't want their type of technology.

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