The Road to Autonomous Cars

A thoughtful piece on the future of automobiles was written by Bob Lutz, former Vice-Chairman of General Motors.  He foresees a 20-year transition before autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) become the main traffic on our roadways.  He expects that consumers will embrace autonomous cars for reasons of convenience and economy, and he expects painful economic changes for the professional drivers, carmakers and dealerships.

Lutz correctly points to the consumer fatigue over traffic and the cost burden of conventional vehicles, two factors that will motivate many drivers to prefer autonomous vehicles that can take them almost anywhere, almost anytime.

A few may focus on the abstract advantage of reducing the 35,000 traffic deaths each year (triple the number of firearm-caused deaths).  Lutz expects that human-driven cars would be accountable for almost all roadway accidents and deaths, giving regulators an excuse to place restrictions and costs on human-driven vehicles.

Others will be highly resentful if they feel government is forcing them to abandon their freedom to drive their own vehicles (surely, it’s somewhere in the constitution), and they may become stridently vocal if they feel they are being overtaxed to fund infrastructure development for autonomous cars.  The road to driverless cars may be politically bumpy.

There are at least two traffic models for autonomous vehicles.  In the first model, autonomous cars would use today’s roads and highways, attempting to co-exist with human-driven cars.  In the second model, autonomous cars could coexist on today’s regular roads and highways, but they would also have some exclusive pathways, like HOV lanes with imbedded navigation electronics.

Massive engineering will be needed to convert our current inventory of paved roads into roads that let autonomous cars perform at their best.  Urban dwellers are more likely to see value in autonomous cars.  Indeed, reengineering for many rural roads may never be cost-efficient.

Autonomous cars would need to comply with federally-set technical standards suited to safe operation on either kind of roadway.  On main routes, autonomous cars would need to run close together in “trains” that conserve space.

Autonomous cars could be owned privately or could operate as public transit utilities and pay “dues” for use of the two types of road.  The utilities would handle passengers much as Uber and Lyft do today.  Already GM, Google, Tesla, Lyft, Uber and others are collaborating for the day when fleets of autonomous vehicles are a commercial success.

The public seems both fascinated and wary of progress made by autonomous cars.  The self-parking feature has convinced some of us that vehicle sensor and logic technologies have progressed toward safe self-driving.  Demonstrations such as Google’s Waymo trial in Arizona give us further confidence because that trial ditched use of a backup driver in the cab.  On the other hand, a Las Vegas crash involving a newly-launched autonomous shuttle gives us pause.  The shuttle was not at fault, but it was too confused to get out of the way when a human driver backed a truck into it.

No doubt we will hear about many more technical trials of the self-driving vehicles.  We will also watch electric vehicles take more of the new car market, provided there is more investment into recharge infrastructure.  Eventually, we will hear government plans for the second model road use that can allow autonomous vehicles to deliver on the consumer expectations they have spawned.