Companies that must employ drivers and pay them, even without customary benefits, would like to replace them with computers that can drive autonomously. This makes such vehicles candidates for taxis, buses, and trucks. But what about customers who actually enjoy being in control of a car that they own? Is that an enduring or dying part of American culture? Let's look at some issues.
There's been a lot of discussion lately about autonomous car technology. We've seen a lot of testing going on, and there's a certain amount of buzz about the technology because it just seems so cool. See: "Self-driving Chevy Bolt arrives in San Francisco." However, there are many questions to be asked and cultural issues that come into play.
The most obvious implementation is the area of replacing human drivers by taxi companies like Didi, Lyft and Uber as well as bus and trucking lines. That seems like a callous thing to do, but it has substantial advantages. Drivers who are responsible for the lives of others occasionally make fatal mistakes. Drug testing and background checks would be eliminated.
When it comes to mind-numbing, stop-and-go daily commutes of more than 20 or 30 minutes, customers would probably rather be drinking coffee and reading or teleconferencing than staring at the back of other cars that constantly cut in front or jockey for position.
On the other hand, for people who live in the wide-open spaces of the American west and south, the tradition of freedom and control that comes from driving a high-performance car won't go away soon. That's why many (hundreds of?) millions of viewers have enjoyed Top Gear over the years, subscribe to car magazines, fantasize about supercars, and will keep watching Clarkson, May and Hammond on Amazon's @thegrandtour this fall.
And then there's the issue of insurance. This is being looked at by the insurance companies. There is no doubt that car accidents and injures are caused by human error. For now, various technologies are being implemented to reduce the cause with lane-change warnings, radar-managed emergency braking, infrared heads-up night vision, and so on. Ultimately, however, the industry has to figure out how to insure the motorist for new environments.
To be sure, property damage (flood, hail, etc) and theft insurance will remain. But when the autonomous cars make a mistake, and they will, the insurance industry will need to work with the manufacturers to balance risk and costs. The reduction in costs due to the elimination of human error and consequent pay-outs could offset the absorption of some liability by the maker. That is, if regulation requires self-monitoring, logging, and a legal way to establish the source of the car's error.
This sensible and comprehensive article is worth a look. "Self-Driving Cars and Insurance" not because it has all the answers but because it raises the right questions.
Why Do We Have Time? So Everything Doesn't Happen at Once
(That was Albert Einstein, BTW). I foresee a gradual transition. An emerging technology period of pre-autonomous smartcars could reduce accidents by quite a bit, but leave the driver in control for pleasure driving or emergencies. Meanwhile, fully-autonomous vehicles will be used by the kinds of companies I mentioned at the top.
Also, the emergence of crowd-sourcing, supercomputers in our pockets, the cloud, augmented reality, and the now technical feasibility of passenger drones could foster unforeseen, serendipitous solutions, and take us down a different road.
It remains to be seen if the car buying public will adopt, in a wholesale fashion, the idea of owning a car that has no controls and cannot be used to, as Chevy has said, "See the U.S.A." There will likely be a mixed environment for a long time to come. Many will just want to fire up their iPhone app and get a pre-programmed ride. Others will still want to take charge (of a much safer, personally owned smartcar) and be on their way to the ski slopes.
It's hard, right now, to predict a highly monolithic vision. There are lots of diffrent people with differing needs and affections. The fully autonomous car won't descend on us in totality, and that's something all the car companies will have to deal with, including, presumably, Apple.
Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 16th. The inevitable technical trade-offs our culture makes.