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As I wrote in my last post, SAE International has identified six discrete levels of vehicle autonomy.
I described the first three in my last post; these are cars that you will see driving on the road today, ranging from the driver having complete control over everything, to some automation (like cruise control and ABS), to more than one system working together to help a driver (like sensing traffic, lane drift, and driver distraction). Now let’s look into the crystal ball of what the next stages look like.
The year is 2017, and those kids from the last level? They’re are out of the house. Flown the coop. The birds have done fledged. For better or worse, they have emancipated. And now you can think about buying your post-kid-centric automobile, while you have the presence of mind to still get irritated at the inattention of other drivers on the road. But wait, what is this new car coming around the bend? What is this new car that no one seems to be driving?
Behold, it is the new Level-Three car. Instead of just sensing what’s around it and how you’re driving the car, it can make its own driving decisions based on conditions, type of driving (freeway, city street, traffic, rain), freeing your frazzled brain from having to worry about it. You will still need to have a driver’s license to make it go, and you will have to pay attention in case something unexpected happens (sinkhole, snowfall covering lane markers, Godzilla, gang of hedgehogs, molasses flood, slugs)—but for your basic commute, you can put your feet up (metaphorically) and drink your durn coffee in peace, already.
(Oh, and here’s the kicker. Your 17-year-old son, just to prove he is the polar opposite of his mother, will purchase a 1979 Datsun 280ZX off of Craig’s List. Total Level-Zero stuff. He won’t even know how to drive a stick when he buys it, and assumes he’ll pick it up fast. Breaking news of the water-is-wet category: He now needs to replace the clutch.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure that Level Three is the one that will be the most problematic to tackle, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this level were skipped altogether. It seems to present a user interface (UI) problem: how do you get our fallible human brains to interact with the car at the drop of a [bucket of paint, falling grand piano, minor parade] when the car doesn’t know what to do? Sure, if a giant boulder were to plop in front of it, the car would stop—but humans need more than a millisecond to gather their wits about them, assess the situation, and decide the best course of action. And if the driver were incapacitated at all (sleeping, or watching cat videos, or performing feats of origami), it would take even more time. Sometimes Godzilla won't wait.
Which leads me to…
…which looks a lot like Level Three, only with more boulders and hedgehogs and sleeping. That’s the best I can discern. Basically, the car will do everything except off-roading in sand dunes and mountain passes.
Or, as not-so-succinctly noted by the SAE:
"The driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene."
In other words, drunk “driving” will be perfectly okay! (Or not. I’ll leave that to the lawyers.)
Here is where my crystal ball starts looking murky. When will driver’s licenses become irrelevant? When will “driving” a car become something that only old fogeys do, kind of like communicating via ham radio? (Apologies to my not-old-fogey-friend Mike, who does occasionally send out radio communiqués via ham radio. But also like ham radio, maybe having the ability to drive would be helpful in emergency situations. I am always glad there are people like Mike in the world.)
Are my kids going to be the last generation to learn how to drive a car, as a matter of course? Will there be parts of urban areas in which it will literally become illegal to drive a car? Seems like a logical conclusion...
People smarter than I am have predicted when these cars will appear, and who will make them; I have heard everything from 2023 to 2050. For some of us, it will be just in time to get an RV and travel the country in happy retirement. For others, it will be just in time to keep us mobile long after we shouldn’t be driving anymore. And for others, it could be a luxury that’s only a few years off. Depends on who you ask.
In any case, these cars won’t look like cars. Imagine your living room, shrunk down to… well, a smaller living room. Super comfy, smooth riding, and perfectly safe. All of them on the road will be connected to each other, sensing the will and intention of every other car on the road. These Level-Five transportation pods will zoom around, not needing traffic lights and turn signals, and traffic jams will be a thing of the past.
Here is where your kids (remember them?) will be able to pop their children into their goldfish-cracker-strewn Level-Five family cars and wave goodbye; the car will then possibly pick up a couple of other students (via a ride-sharing app—goodbye school buses), then drop them off at school. The car could then hook into a city-wide ridesharing app for the day, not needing to be idle at any point (except when it needs to re-fuel—at which point it hits the automatic gas station), then it comes when called and picks up mom from work, drops her at home, and only when no one has a need for a ride will it take itself to some vast parking garage in the sky on the outskirts of town.
This leads to the obvious question: Why even own a goldfish-cracker-strewn car at all? After all, no individual really owns an airplane or city bus. Maybe this is where the era of the personal automobile ends. Think about the vast amount of city space that is currently spent housing cars that are idle in a parking lot a full 95% of the time[i] —not to mention the four full days a year[ii] that drivers spend just looking for parking spaces!
Just as how the invention of the automobile changed the world, so the very landscape of urban areas will change with the advent of the fully automated automobile fleet.
Until then, I’ll settle back in my comfy [brand name car that starts with a "p" and whom everyone seems to hate as I drive over Highway 17] to see how this unfolds. Popcorn, anyone?
[i] See p. 6, chapter 1 of Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking:
"Regardless of how fuel efficient our cars are or how little pollution they emit, we will always need somewhere to park them, and the average car spends about 95 percent of its life parked."
[ii] See this article published last February in The Telegraph. While specific to Londoners, similar figures apply to other urban car ownership:
“The figure is based on the Department of Transport’s National Travel Survey, which indicates that motorists undertake an average of 921 car journeys a year each… [and] the average time motorists spend looking for a space is 5.9 mins, adding up to a total of 90.5 hours—or four days—spent searching for a parking spot over the year.”