Smart cars change driving forever

When I was seven, I had the privilege of being able to spend Wednesday afternoons having tea with my nan. One of the best things about this was the walk to the sweet shop, which would involve passing through an alleyway in order to arrive at the main street — or, rather, because this was Broad Oak in the sleepy county of Sussex, it was called a twitten. And this part of the walk always took us a fair while, which was entirely my fault. For the twitten had a grassy verge that was littered with old, abandoned vehicles that belonged, according to my grandmother, to my Uncle Willow, who collected them — presumably for spare parts. One of these cars was a rusty and unloved Volkswagen Beetle, which, for one reason or another, captured my imagination as a young lad.

I would take the time to survey the car, pacing around its curvaceous bodywork and examining its interior. I decided that, one day, when I had money, I would rid it of its sorry red rust and have it sprayed a magnificent and elegant dark green. I’d have silver bumpers and trimmings, white hub caps and, on the inside, it would have black leather seats, a polished wood interior and I’d remove all the cobwebs and dust that lay over the unused steering wheel and dials. And it seemed like a realistic dream, for cars had essentially been the same for decades before — and there was no reason to think they would be particularly different in the decades to come. How wrong I was.

In her keynote speech at the CES event in Las Vegas, the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, predicted that the automotive industry will change more in the next five to ten years than it has in the last fifty. So much so that current technological advances have the ability to change our relationships with cars — and the very act of driving — forever. How naive my dream now seems, when we consider Google’s view of driving in the future. Their vision, of course, is that we simply get into a vehicle, lock in the destination, hit a button and to that destination we will be taken, no driving required. The way in which our ancestors interacted with cars is to be consigned to history, a mere distant memory of how we used to live.

Imagine, if, as a seven year old, something magical had happened as I walked around my rusty old Beetle. Imagine having a bolt of vision from the world in 2040. Maybe that’s the magic I was waiting for as I contemplated my restoration project, but it never happened! But now, in 2016, we are getting a glimpse of how things might look in the coming decades. We can see that, with the current pace of change, by 2040, we will be a society that is cast deep into an era of connected gadgets — the Internet of Things. Far beyond a ‘fad’ or a pipe dream, it’s possible to imagine our daily lives having been transformed by these Internet-connected gadgets, combined with automation and robots. Like the digital revolution that has preceded it, this dawning era of robots and automation is already calling for new business models, new philosophies and new ethics. It will fundamentally redefine the world economy. The car industry takes time to change, but the concept of an autonomous smart car is already forcing car manufacturers to prepare for what that future economy — and society — might look like. And, as The Washington Post reported in the run up to CES: “Cars continue to hold their place as the tech gadget that companies appear to be the most interested in, as they still represent a largely untapped market for advanced connected technologies.”

Of course, we already started this journey some time ago. Google initiated the self-driving car project in 2009 and it involved team members who had already been working on similar ideas prior to Google’s involvement. And, as Google themselves admit, the idea is an old one, borrowed from late 1930s science-fiction, when visitors at New York World’s Fair were presented with the vision of automated highways.

It was 2011 when Google finally persuaded the state of Nevada to pass a law permitting autonomous cars, a law which itself came into effect in 2012. This saw the first adapted Toyota Prius vehicles gaining their first autonomous car licences. Next, the states of Florida and California passed their own laws and, by 2016, Google is able to report that they have clocked up over 1 million miles of self-driving using a test fleet of cars. And they’ve even built their own self-driving car from scratch. If Google’s vision comes good, then, in the coming decades, we will be able to make our way into work, or travel to our holiday destination, while relaxing in our autonomous cars — maybe catching up on emails, watching a movie or listening to tunes streamed over the web. Meanwhile, driving-related deaths should have been reduced to almost nothing. According to reports cited by Google, there are over 1.2 million vehicle related deaths worldwide every year and 94% of accidents in the U.S. involve human error.

This safety aspect has captured the imaginations of other tech manufacturers who are keen to get involved in aspects of the autonomous car market. This week, John Thistleton of the Canberra Times in Australia reported on Seeing Machines, a company which has developed technology that “uses smart cameras and algorithms to track a driver’s face, eyes and eyelids to monitor their attention and alertness levels in real time.” John spoke to chief executive, Ken Kroeger, who commented: “Imagine a world where your car knows how able, or available, you are to properly operate your vehicle, and automatically compensates by seamlessly taking away and handing back control to you on a continual basis, without you even knowing that it’s happening.”

So, this leaves legislators with both clear positives for mandating the technology, as well as massive headaches. On the positive side, the smart, autonomous car with its emphasis on safety and more efficient driving heralds a new era of transportation. And you can imagine, it would be one that’s welcomed in many major cities. Today’s vehicles in London already cause the city to break EU safe pollution levels in practically every street, so anything that helps combat this is sure to be lauded. On the other hand, if we consider Ken Kroeger’s words, in particular where he says that it could be unclear to the driver whether it is in fact the driver or the car that is in control, how would that pan out if a vehicle happens to be involved in a collision? Lawmakers and insurers would have to rewrite the book on where culpability sits. This isn’t an issue in itself, but the slow place of passing and adopting legislation already leaves the technological possibilities far ahead of the legal curve.

Of course, the other issue is the expense of these vehicles and here’s where we really get a glimpse of alternative business models. Cars sporting this technology will undoubtedly come with a hefty price tag. But, it could be that, by 2040, we are not the owners of such cars. In line with an open, ‘sharing’ economy and the move away from self-ownership, it’s more likely that we’ll hail an autonomous car from an available fleet using an app on our smartphones — similar to how we already flag down an Uber cab. Google has already suggested this as their preference for getting the technology rolled out. So if London taxi drivers think they’ve had a battle on their hands with Uber, they’re going to be shocked to find that not even Uber’s business model is necessarily bullet-proof against all future tech advancements. And if the rumours about Apple’s desire to launch its own version of the autonomous vehicle are true, then there will be two tech giants fighting for their own slice of this market. Never second guess Apple, but Google’s suggested model would work for them — it fits nicely with Apple’s desire to continually push the smartphone to the centre of every individual’s universe.

Google and Apple may not get the easy ride they hope for, however. The classic car manufacturers are not about to let their markets be crushed by outsiders, not without a fight at least. They are worthy opponents, with extensive knowledge and background in the industry, which they will leverage in order to survive and thrive. And they have too. As a post in Business Insider this week concludes: “A Barclays analyst note earlier this year predicted that ride-hailing services combined with self-driving cars could reduce US auto sales by 40% in the next 25 years.” So it’s no surprise, then, that CES 2016 included two keynotes from car veterans General Motors and Volkswagen Passenger Cars. In a sign of things to come, GM has recently teamed up with ride share providers Lyft, acknowledging that not all car users in the future will wish to be car owners.

And it’s not only in the US where we’re seeing these alternative approaches, which all form part of a larger ‘smart city’ vision. Ford’sGoDrive scheme has been expanding in London, which Ford says aims to “offer Londoners and visitors to the capital a more flexible, practical and affordable car-sharing service.” And, at CES, Ford announced its Smart Mobility plan. This comprises a series of experiments across the globe which again take into account the future of our cities and urban planning. In their words, “The 25 experiments address four global megatrends — explosive population growth, an expanding middle class, air quality and public health concerns, and changing customer attitudes and priorities — challenging today’s transportation model and limiting personal mobility, especially in urban areas.” Social collaboration forms a part of this plan and a push from Ford into the customer driving experience and associated services will be important to its success.

It’s easy, though, to get wrapped up in solving urban crises with the concept of autonomous cars and forget that, for some of us, driving isn’t a chore to be overcome. It can be an enjoyable, therapeutic and relaxing experience. It’s a man-machine relationship and, oftentimes, we want to be in control. For that reason, I enjoyed reading Jonathon Gitlin’s review of the BMW i8 concept car, in which he points out that the fully autonomous car is, perhaps, not in reach. So in the meantime, designers have decided to take the stress out of driving with the idea of a fully gesture-based user control system, combined with this neat feature (and I quote): “A physical toggle switch on the wheel switches the car between three different modes: Pure Drive (you take the wheel), Assist (think adaptive cruise control and lane keeping), and Auto Mode, where the car will take control. In Auto, the wheel retracts towards the dash, and the LEDs in the rim change colour, making it unambiguous as to who is supposed to be in charge.”

The reality is, smart cars would work best if all cars were smart cars — and manually driven cars didn’t use public roads at all. Manual cars would be confined to race tracks and private use, so that there was no temptation to live out one’s Lewis Hamilton dreams on public thoroughfares. In this scenario, it is much easier to legislate. Driving licences would be a thing of the past and it would mean that everyone had equal and fair access to vehicles, including those with disabilities, poor vision and the elderly. It would be easier to manage safety, emissions control and parking availability. And no-one would break the rules of the highway, so all that policing resource would be freed up. We’d have to consider the privacy aspect, because it would mean that every journey could be micro-monitored but you could argue that, with number plate recognition systems and CCTV, we’re already a long way down that road anyway.

So how do you envisage driving in the coming decades? Do you prefer the idea of ditching car ownership in favour of a shared approach? Can smart cars sort out the mess on city roads and the problems of urban transportation more generally? Do you like the idea of never having to manually drive again? Or do you consider that previous paragraph as a nightmare scenario that would sap all the fun out of the world?! How will smart cars fit into the wider Internet of Things and smart home landscape? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Whatever happens, it’s difficult to predict at this stage what the car market will look like and who the main players will be in fifteen or twenty years from now. Two things are for sure. First, government authorities and other interested parties, such as insurance providers, will have a big role to play in terms of how the market shapes up and what they want to see. Second, automation is here — and it’s here to stay. If it means I never have to parallel park on a busy street with onlookers and back seat drivers giving out their helpful advice again, and I could choose when I wanted to hand control to the car — but with the option to take back control — I’d take that as a happy compromise.

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