Is there a topic that could be of any less interest to a certified car guy than driverless cars operated by computers? In our current society it may be safe to say that there is more interest in computers than automobiles by males between fifteen to twenty-five years old. Poll any group of seventeen year old high school students and you’ll be surprised at how many cannot operate a manual transmission. And couldn’t care less. Most millennials, defined as the generation born from 1980 onward, are in the same category. However, those who would appreciate the kind of relationship with vehicles that will transport them from place to place with a minimum of interaction from them only make up a slice of the population as a whole. Nevertheless, everyone else may have no choice because the age of driverless cars is coming at us head-on.
Experts say completely autonomous vehicles are fifteen to twenty years off with some manufacturers claiming they will have working models in three years or less. Almost every major auto manufacturer currently has product development engineers working on autonomous vehicles. Mega-computer/technology companies like Google, Apple, Intel, Baidu and other names you’ve probably never heard of are working on the problem just like Ford, GM, Toyota, Volvo, Nissan, Audi and Tesla. Even Uber is seriously looking into it. This is a race to the future in which no one wants to be left behind.
Probably anyone’s first experience with a driverless car was at an amusement park like Disneyland. Sitting in electric-powered cartoon cars and moving along narrow concrete “roads” with controllers sunk into the concrete was hardly a real world experience but it, nonetheless, pointed to a direction that might be tomorrow’s reality. Well, tomorrow is almost here. Google is mapping every piece of asphalt or concrete in the country and Apple and other computer giants have working models of driverless cars running around the streets in Silicon Valley. Talk about driverless busses, trucks and Uber taxis no longer inspires quizzical looks or raised eyebrows.
How do we know they are really serious about all this? Because a small army of lawyers are investigating the legal aspects of who would be at fault if a driverless car is involved in an accident. One way to cut the odds of this happening way down – now pay attention here – is if cars with human drivers were not allowed on the roads with autonomous vehicles. “Not allowed” is another way of saying government intervention, but don’t worry, it will be for our own good. All government control of the masses is for our own good. Getting large numbers of citizens to use public transportation, from busses to trains to public bicycle-sharing systems, has not worked in the United States because the size and the diversity of the country does not accept a one-size-fits-all philosophy. What might work in New York City, Boston or San Francisco will not work in Montana, central Pennsylvania or West Texas. It may work in some European countries (which American government apparatchiks gaze upon so lovingly) that are smaller in area and have higher populations in cities with less room for personally owned vehicles, or in countries like China where a totalitarian government can exercise absolute control over the population, telling each person where to work, where to live and how they must travel. Autonomous vehicles may be a good first step towards this kind of control. For our own good, comrade.
It will be a society where everyday decisions like where to go, when to begin your trip, where you will stop along the way, and what route you will use will be negated by your driverless car. Vehicular ownership may become a relic of the past - in this future everyone will be leasing their vehicle, paying for its use like you pay for a subscription to cable TV. You don’t own it, you merely pay to use it. Forget about a choice of color, options or personalizing “your” vehicle in any way. You’ll get the car you are assigned and you will not be allowed to tamper with its performance. Just sit back, fasten your safety harness and shut up.
People will need bread and circuses to keep them from thinking about the loss of freedoms so basic that they hardly contemplate them. Until, of course, they no longer have them. So we will be entertained by racing between driverless cars. Life-sized radio-controlled cars.
The competitive spirit is deeply ingrained into the human psyche. Individuals competed against each other from the very beginning, perhaps in a footrace to see who could reach a downed bird first. The winner eats and the loser goes hungry. At some point the footrace was conducted merely to see who was faster. Who could throw a rock farther, or swim the greatest distance. Competition was for its own sake. When man rode horses it wasn’t too long before there was a race to see whose horse was faster. And as soon as a second automobile was created, a race between them was not far behind.
So there will come a day when computers will be controlling race cars without drivers. Soulless, like playing chess against a computer. Some of us may live to see that day but not many of us will be interested in witnessing the actual competition, at least as long as we are able to remember how it was when real racing cars had drivers demonstrating their skills: Fangios, Gurneys, Hills, Clarks, Pettys, Donohues, Foyts and the rest - anyone who ever sat behind the wheel of a race car. It will be a far cry from rooting for some generic #12 to win. It would be the end of racing as we know it but it might entertain younger generations.
Another question comes to mind. Would anyone go to a race track and pay admission to watch unmanned competition? I can’t quite picture filling Daytona International Speedway, Watkins Glen, California Speedway or Lowes Motor Speedway with thousands of cheering fans. More likely, there would there be an app so you could watch it on your iPhone or iPad while the Uber autonomous vehicle you called takes you to the mall.