The vehicular nirvana of the driverless car is making its debut as a niche product, and it will long stay that way.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn expects to be selling consumers driverless cars by 2020, just five years from now. Tesla CEO Elon Musk expects his driverless cars will make their debut in 2023. Jaguar Land Rover’s estimate for its vehicles is 2024. Daimler predicts 2025.
Others aren’t that pessimistic. Audi CEO Rupert Stadler expects his next-generation A8 driverless limousine will make its first appearance next year, before its global release in 2017. Google founder Sergey Brin is revving his company’s electric two-seater for 2018.
Driverless vehicles will be a godsend for society, all agree. With ever-alert computers taking over from distracted, drunk or sleepy drivers, traffic accidents will plummet, slashing insurance costs – a boon to all except the insurance companies. With car sharing becoming commonplace and morphing into public transit – Singapore promotes such a door-to-door service – the number of vehicles on the road will diminish, a boon to all except the car companies. With fewer vehicles, less road infrastructure will be needed – slashing the road network we would otherwise need by as much as 60 per cent. Maybe more, if Volvo’s vision of “car trains”– vehicles travelling on the road while packed tightly together, to eliminate the need for extra road space – comes to pass.
Fewer cars and fewer roads would benefit the environment, too, as would the optimized fuel consumption to come, courtesy of the smart cars’ smart computers’ ability to smooth driving. Completing the picture is a more caring society. The blind, disabled and elderly who now cannot acquire driver’s licenses will be freed from their physical limitations. The 1 per cent won’t need to put up with testy chauffeurs.
This vehicular nirvana comes of the marriage of the traditional automobile and modern computer technology, but it will be an uneasy marriage. The automobile is a fully mature product, its basic design determined more than a century ago and then over the decades improved continuously with incremental innovations such as electric windows, automatic steering and cruise control. Even so, our by now thoroughly understood, highly engineered cars often fail, sometimes necessitating mass recalls.
In contrast, computer technology continues to advance at breakneck speeds, preventing it from being tested by time. Hardware fails and software – notoriously buggy – must routinely be corrected though patches and new releases. The GPS navigation systems that are now in use in 25 per cent of our cars often make mistakes, at times dangerously so. Drivers have been directed along railway lines, into lakes and over cliffs, with countless lives spared only because alert drivers saw the danger in time and disregarded instructions. Those lives won’t be spared in the scenarios foreseen by the driverless car backers, where passengers can text, watch movies or sleep while their car whisks them worry-free to their destination.
Because computers will still freeze, shut down and otherwise unexpectedly act up in 2020, and for as long as the rapidly innovating computer industry remains, by definition, immature, driverless cars will hold the potential to cause havoc on the road. Thorough testing in real-life situations will be impossible: Quirks of nature – whether freezing rain, snow, fog, or extreme heat and cold – promise spectacular calamities when they cause onboard equipment such as radar or sensors to fail.
For such reasons, a large and growing literature proposes changes in the law to accommodate driverless vehicles, including exempting manufacturers from liability on the logic that, on balance, more lives will be saved than lost once computers do our driving for us, even if from time to time they behave as if they have minds of their own.
Because computers will still freeze and otherwise unexpectedly act up in 2020, driverless cars will hold the potential to cause havoc
A related, and possibly more serious, liability concern involves hacking. Driverless cars – and thus the road system itself once they obtain a dominant market share – will be vulnerable to mischief at the hands of pranksters, if not terrorism by Anonymous wannabees who reject the consumerism of the car-economy or Western society in general. In July, Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.4 million vehicles after discovering that hackers could remotely take control of Jeeps driving down the highway.
The price-tags of these vehicles will also drive purchasers off the showroom floor. A fully loaded driverless Toyota Prius can cost US$320,000. The driverless version of the Audi A8 is expected to double its price. Google’s two-seater is expected to go for $75,000. The premium will drop, though, say industry experts, to $10,000 in 2025, $5,000 in 2030 and $3,000 in 2035.
Will driverless cars take us to a utopia or a dystopia? Probably neither. More likely, they will remain niche oddities for the foreseeable future while the traditional automobile continues to evolve with ever-more innovations such as self-parking and collision-avoidance features. Down the road, after computer technology sufficiently matures, the traditional automobile will add as an optional feature driverless capabilities.