Self-Driving Vehicles: Transformational Technology

Feeling a little glum this holiday season? Despite the determined cheerfulness of the holiday music and lights that surround us, Americans are consistently telling pollsters that they are quite pessimistic about the future.

Their pessimism, of course, extends far beyond their feelings about the gridlock that plagues lawmakers in Washington DC. Technology itself, once perceived as a great enabler of social progress, appears to be incapable of capping oil spills, managing natural disasters, and solving countless other problems.

Indeed, even the great discoveries of our time appear to pale before the inventions of yesteryear. For instance, while some commentators compared Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at the time of his demise, others noted that the iPod, iPhone, and iPad failed to transform our lives in the same manner as did the light bulb and the automobile.

Every so often, though, American ingenuity has a sparkling way of glimmering through the darkest of concerns. In a sense, we witnessed such a situation last week, as an unusually gloomy recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) appeared to be tailor-made for a potential solution that was recently patented by Google.

Ban All Electronic Devices!

The recommendation was presented by NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who surprised the American public with some strikingly extreme policy advice. Namely, Ms. Hersman publicly announced that the NTSB now supports a comprehensive nation wide ban on the use of all portable electronic devices by drivers of all moving vehicles.

Yes, that ban would include “hands free” telephones. It would also include text messaging devices. And although not explicitly stated, it would presumably encompass hand held Garmin “satellite traffic” devices and other mobile Global Positioning System units as well.

Ms. Hersman supported her recommendation by presenting various case incidents of horrific accidents that recently occurred when distracted drivers, using such devices, took their eyes off the road.

Apparently, the bans on handheld mobile phones that are currently in place in several states would have done nothing to prevent these terrible events. According to Ms. Hersman, the NTSB has concluded that more extreme solutions are required to stop the carnage.

Eliminating The Driver

And what does Google propose to implement as a substitute solution to a nation wide ban on all electronic driving devices? Simply enough, Google actually proposes to produce moving vehicles that can drive themselves!

The concept itself has been circulating in the world of science fiction for many years. A robotic taxi driver was famously featured in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, which in turn was based on Philip K. Dick’s earlier 1966 novelette entitled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

And self-moving vehicles are already in limited commercial use. In 2006, for instance, the Lexus LS 460 sedan become the first automobile that could maneuver itself into parallel parking spots with little or no interference by its drivers. BMW, Ford, Lincoln, Mercedes, and Toyota are now offering similar systems in their own vehicles.

But nobody has yet developed a technology that can self-drive vehicles over extended distances. General Motors’ Vice President of Global Research and Development Alan Taub, though, recently predicted that autonomously driving vehicles will be in widespread use “within the next decade.”

Pros And Cons

What are the benefits of self-driving vehicles? Well, assuming that the software technology proves to be reliable, we would all be able to phone and text our friends — or even kick back and read a book! — while our automobiles drive us to our destinations.

That would certainly address the concerns raised by Ms. Hersman and the NTSB. It would also dramatically improve the quality of life of millions of commuters, who could redirect thousands of hours of driving time to other endeavors.

But on a longer term basis, such vehicles would impose numerous social costs as well. Imagine the increase in energy use and pollution costs if all commuters now utilizing mass transportation were to switch to self-driven automobiles instead!

The gridlock we now experience would undoubtedly worsen too. In cities like New York, where mass transportation options and road traffic already exist side by side, how much longer would it take us to drive across town?

Transformation and Hope

Even though the possible benefits of such technologies may be narrowed by the long term pitfalls and complications, we can nevertheless take hope from the fact that technology still possesses the potential to transform our society.

Centuries ago, diseases like smallpox and cholera seemed like unstoppable scourges until medical technologies developed vaccines to eradicate or control them. And during the past two decades, the internet has globalized knowledge and revolutionized communications.

Those technologies must have seemed impossibly clumsy and ineffective to citizens who were living through the early days of their genesis and development. Although videos of Google’s self driving prototype automobile similarly portray it as a slow and plodding vehicle, it is still possible to hope for a future when its technology can enhance our lives.