Exciting Times Ahead
I believe that over the next 20 years, self-driving cars are going to revolutionize they way our world works unlike any technology we have seen in a long time, since, maybe, cars themselves a hundred and twenty years ago.
I recently read that Google’s self-driving cars have already logged 700,000 miles on California roads without driver intervention. But there are many challenges ahead for them.
Here is an article about simple things Google’s self-driving cars can’t handle yet, including bad weather, potholes, roads that haven’t been googled yet and handling road construction.
Elsewhere I read that there are three challenges that may seem innocuous at first that really get in the way. First is dealing with an empty parking lot. Picture a shopping mall after hours. There are no reference points, just faded marks in the pavement. The cars supposedly don’t know what to do with that.
Another problem is driving into multi-level parking garages. I am not surprised. I know many humans that hate driving in parking garages. They are often very tight, usually poorly lit, and traffic rules don’t apply. It is never clear which way is up or down, and whether a path is one-way or two-way. How would a self-driving car be able to deal with that?
Finally, handling traffic lights with the rising or setting sun right behind them. I must admit, I also have problems with that. I remember times when only careful management of the visor, quick glances at the lights, and following the lead of other cars around me was able to get me across the intersections and hopefully out of the blast-zone of the setting sun. A camera alone on top of a self-driving car would not have a chance.
All these examples are formidable challenges for self-driving cars. But they all can be overcome, not necessarily by software and algorithms, but by infrastructure.
When the telephone was first invented, many skeptics predicted that it would never work. After all, you’d have to run a wire to every house you want to call. That’s certainly never going to happen. Well, we all know that it actually did happen. Not only that, we have already leapfrogged that stage, and nowadays you don’t need to run a wire to a house anymore and still get telephone reception. The trick with making the telephone successful was not the technology of the phone itself, but the infrastructure around it: a wire to every house and every office in the country.
Before cars, when our only method of transportation was walking, riding a horse or a horse and buggy, the stage-coach concept revolutionized long-distance travel. The passengers rode in a comparatively comfortable closed cabin on cushioned seats, the cabin on strong springs, while a team of horses pulled the coach. The distance from station to station was just long enough for a team of horses to handle. The passengers reached the station, got refreshments while the horses were changed, and then traveled right on for the next station, and so on. Long distance travel in the horse and buggy age was not possible because of super horses, but because of the infrastructure of the properly spaced stations, and the people who serviced them.
When motor cars came about, critics said they would never work. You’d have to pave roads to everywhere you want to go. Besides, they’d break down in the middle of nowhere leaving you stranded all the time. And you’d have to put gasoline into them. You’d need filling stations all over the place. We all know that faster than anyone would have believed it, we built paved roads, interstate highways, gas stations are everywhere, and cars can go coast to coast without ever breaking down.
As traffic increased, the traffic policeman in the middle of the intersection directing the flow could no longer handle it and we invented traffic lights. Now traffic lights are everywhere, making mass automobile traffic possible.
It’s not the car that made the automobile society, it was the infrastructure built around the car.
What Robots Need
A self-driving car is a robot, before it is a car. Robots don’t need traffic lights. Robots don’t need white lines on the side of the road and double yellow ones in the middle. Robots don’t pass other robots in dangerous areas.
While we are currently in a transition period, and our robots need cameras to look at green and red traffic lights, sometimes outshone by the sun, this will not be the solution for the long-term.
Roads will be outfitted with electronic markers that give direction to cars. The robots will sense the edges of the roads by using such markers they can pick up at high speed, rather than having cameras try to find while lines or other obstacles.
The robots will have inter-robot communication. Cars next to each other will communicate with each other. This means that they will be able to drive 70 miles per hour bumper to bumper without jeopardizing anyone. They won’t need traffic lights in intersections. All the cars approaching from all directions will “negotiate” who goes first. Nobody will need to stop. Cars will simply zoom through in all directions, making sure that there is enough spacing for cross traffic. Stopping at red lights will become obsolete.
Freeways will not have two directions anymore. The cars will figure out how many lanes in each direction they need and just take them. Traffic will self-regulate.
Then, when a car gets to a point where it doesn’t know how to go on, it will simply pull over and issue the “take over, human” command. A joystick will pop out of the dashboard that will allow the human passenger in the car to guide the car up that dirt driveway, around the old oak tree, to grandmother’s house and safely park it in the grass without running over the flower beds.
When our cars can handle themselves like this, we really don’t need parking lots anymore at airports, train stations, shopping malls or restaurants downtown. We will simply have our cars drop us off at the front door wherever we are going. Then the car will drive away to a parking garage that’s designed just for cars. The cars will stack themselves up like sardines. No humans will have to enter those garages, the doors of the cars don’t have to swing open, and the cars can simply sit in total darkness and wait until their humans are done with dinner, or shopping, or work, and call them back using their apps on their smart watches – or brain implants.
Cities will be clean again. The only cars on city streets will be those that are on their way to drop off or pick up their passengers. They will park in peripheral facilities away from the human activity.
If cars just come and pick us up and drop us off, why would we even need to own cars anymore? Cars could become just pods that pick us up at our houses or apartments and take us to the nearest mass transit station, or airport. On the other end of the mass-transit, we’d get off and another car would pick us up and take us where we’re going.
If we’re not going anywhere, we don’t need a car. So we won’t own any.
Cars will then likely just be electric. For longer road trips, it will work like the stage coaches. The car will take us as far as its charge allows it to go. It will find the nearest charging station. We’ll transfer to another car and on we’ll go.
Jetsons are Here
Our future with self-driving cars won’t be in Toyota Priuses with fancy software and camera and radar hood on top of the car. Our future won’t be flying cars like we all saw them with the Jetsons. Our future will be a different mass transit system altogether. And it won’t be the self-driving cars that make it all possible. It will be the infrastructure designed specifically for the robots.