Every few years, we're promised the impending arrival of self-driving cars. Finally, estimates are getting a bit more conservative (which implies they're more realistic). The latest projection? The year 2019.
They've been tested for ages, by engineers and developers, traditional automakers and even Google. Self-driving cars will work based on super-complex systems that are comprised of technology that, for the most part, we already have. GPS, for example, will keep the car on course. Cameras around the perimeter of the car will constantly scan for obstacles, and they'll be connected to sensors that monitor other road conditions. This network will provide feedback to the car's computers and electrical system, so the car can stay on its scheduled path of travel while maintaining a safety cushion from everything else on the road. Most new cars already boast some of these benefits, in features like bumper-mounted reverse cameras, parallel parking assist and traffic jam assist. They're intended to improve safety, of course, but have the side effect of reducing the driver's need to concentrate, pay attention and react quickly. The ultimate achievement? Experts say the target is to get drivers in a fully automated car that will never crash, possibly by the year 2025.
There are other implications to be considered, too. Once most cars are self-driving, what will be the joy of car ownership? Of course, a lot of people will argue that there is no joy, especially in commuting. The car is just a way to get from one place to another, not an achievement in itself. So, fine. Hit a button that will tell the car to head to work, sit back and enjoy your coffee along with the morning's news streamed to the in-dash console. Might as well be on a bus. But at least the workday can be started a bit earlier.
But what about the thrill of lacing up your driving shoes and cranking the ignition of a Karmann Ghia or a vintage Porsche, or taking a scenic cruise in drop-top American muscle, or hearing an exotic sports car zipping by? What about driving for pleasure without a destination in mind? ("Sorry kids, we can't stop for ice cream -- the car said so!") It's reasonable to assume that at some point, the car industry will become completely homogenous, and self-driving cars might accelerate that disintegration of culture.
It'll take a long time before driverless cars are actually safer and more efficient than the traditional prone-to-human-error variety -- we need to know computers are up to the challenge, costs need to come way down, and we have to redesign roads and write new laws. So far, there's no timetable for conversion that indicates that we will be forced to abandon our current cars and jump on the computer-driven bandwagon.