During the 50 years between 1915 and 1965, citizens of the developed world experienced an incredible volume of life-changing technological advances. Widespread implementation of motor vehicles, telephones, commercial aviation and television made everyday life in 1965 unimaginably different from
1915. Atomic power, space travel and computing technology made less impact on everyday life, but had astonishing impact on our world.
We’ve seen a lot of progress in the nearly 50 years between 1965 and 2013: the modern smartphone and the World Wide Web, in particular,
have been transformative. However, it’s probably true that our current world would not astonish a time traveler from 1965 as much as 1965 would
have surprised a visitor from 1915. Where are the jetpacks, flying cars, colonies on Mars?
However, it does look like we are finally going to see one of the long-awaited benefits of the future: the self-driving car. It’s been known for some
time that Google and others have been working on building an autonomous driving vehicle. It’s been easy to believe that these successful prototypes are gimmicks that won’t impact our everyday life anytime soon; however, the main technologies have matured rapidly, and it now appears that self-driving cars can be technically and economically feasible within the next few years.
One of the key technologies—which we all are familiar with—are satellite car navigation systems. GPS location technology has become cheap enough to be included in virtually all smartphones, while mapping and automated driving directions are increasingly accurate. GPS navigation systems are both consuming from, and contributing to the mapping system. Google recently acquired Waze technology, which uses real-time traffic information from users to immediately update directions based on current driving conditions.
Many cars are already being equipped with some self-driving capabilities. Many modern cars can auto-brake and maintain safe distances using 3-D cameras and LIDAR (RADAR using light beams). Self-parking and auto-lane steering systems are also becoming increasingly common.
These systems, together with GPS guidance, have been shown to correctly drive complex routes. Traffic signals and signs, lane
indicators and curbs actually are relatively easy pattern recognition\ targets—far easier than verbal language or handwriting. People are generally a little hesitant to trust a car without a human driver, but, given that maybe 90% of car accidents are caused by human error, self-driving cars actually stand to be the most significant cause of accident reduction. Self-driving cars have some positive effects on society as a whole that are not immediately obvious.
If cars are self-driving, it’s not quite so important that you own your own vehicle. Car sharing makes a lot of sense when the car is able to drive itself to your location when needed. An incredible optimization in public transportation is likely as the fixed route and schedule system give way to an ondemand flexible routing. The need for extensive parking structures in busy locations also could become a thing of the past—a self-driving car can drop you at your location, then drive itself to a parking system miles away, awaiting your pickup request.
It seems likely that regulation rather than technology is going to be the biggest obstacle to the mainstream deployment of fully self-driving cars. But, given that many of the features of self-driving cars have obvious safety benefits, we can expect these features to start incrementally appearing every year. Your car will increasingly be equipped with autonomous decision making, voice recognition, predictive advisories, and full integration into the internet. The automobile stands to become an application platform that will integrate completely into your digital life.