Autonomous Cars With No Steering Wheel?

I Just Don’t See it

I recently had the opportunity to preview a book about driverless autos while it was still being written (Sudha Jamthe, “2030 The Driverless World: Business Transformation from Autonomous Vehicles”). Jamthe presents numerous fascinating scenarios about how automated cars will transform the world. Her book covers business topics, the auto service industry, the technology that makes autonomous cars work and more. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to how we as humans communicate with one another while driving, emphasizing how much non-verbal communication goes into what we do when we drive. Jamthe goes beyond the common discussion of how driverless cars will work, although she does cover that as well, to analyze some of the disruptions that will result from the inevitable transition to autonomous vehicles.

Previewing her book got me thinking about how I use a car and about how car usage might change over time. I emphasize might, because there are many things that I am not certain about. Here are a few:

No Steering Wheel?

In both Jamthe’s book and elsewhere, I have seen much speculation about whether manufacturers will eventually eliminate the steering wheel in self-driving cars. Will they turn cars into automated living rooms? I have a hard time envisioning how they will completely do away with manual capability. Here are some reasons.

Poor Weather Conditions

Maybe I don’t understand the technology well enough, but I was thinking about this the other day while driving in the mountains. Part of the road was covered in snow; part of it had frozen ice on it. I could see no lane lines whatsoever. Immediately to the side of the road, there was a snow bank about 6 feet high. Will a self driving car be able to sort all of that out and keep me safe while turning a corner on the side of a mountain?

On that note, where I grew up, despite all efforts to prevent it, cars sometimes get stuck on ice or in the snow. We learned a technique when we were teens whereby we could sometimes “rock” the car to freedom. First, we’d step on the gas just a little with the car in forward. Then we’d quickly shift it into reverse and give it just a little gas. Then again in forward, and quickly back into reverse. Sometimes, if you could get the car rocking, you could gain momentum and traction and get it off of the ice or out of a snow bank without a tow. How are you going to teach a self-driving car to do that?

Parking — Special Cases

I see a lot of issues around parking too. When I was younger, my friends and I would go to the beach a lot. The parking lot was all dirt, there were no lines; no designated parking spots. We’d go throughout the year. In winter, the dirt parking lot would sometimes be covered with snow and ice. Sometimes in spring, there would be huge pot-holes in the dirt, from the snow, ice and rain. We’d have to negotiate the potholes as we parked our cars in non-defined spots. How will a self-driving car know where to park and how to avoid the deep potholes?

Similarly, when I was a kid, we had lots of family BBQ parties and many cousins would come over. They would cram their cars into our driveway but when the driveway was full, people would park on the grass. Sometimes there were as many as 12–15 cars. There were no formal parking slots in the grass; it was completely freeform. People would just make it work. If someone was blocking your car and you wanted to leave, someone else would get their keys, find a good place to put it, move their car a few feet one way or another and slowly slide it into an open spot. The person who was leaving would navigate through the yard almost like students walking on campus between classes. How will your steering wheel-free car know what to do? Might there be a stylus to use on a dashboard screen? Will you verbally instruct the car? “A little more to the right, now back up a little more,… forward and to the left a bit. Oh no! Not that much!” Try to imagine that.

What about parking at a ballgame or a festival? Hordes of people are all arriving at the same time. There are long lines to get into the parking lot. You wait and wait and then it’s your turn to pay. That all requires fairly fine movement. Then you’re sent to a specific section of the enormous parking lot. People with flashlights direct you to the proper section, then the proper row and then the proper spot. Would the car “see” the flashlights and know what they mean? What if it’s daylight and parking lot monitors are using orange cone-like batons. Will the automated car recognize those?

Who Doesn’t Like to “Cruise?”

What about teens on dates? Think Chuck Berry, “No Particular Place to Go.” (Look it up if you don’t know it.) When we were young, we used to just kind of cruise around the suburbs with no particular destination. We’d cruise through our friends’ neighborhoods, look to see if anyone was around, or if one friend’s car was parked outside another friend’s house. We’d find each other, or find things to do, just driving around. Of course kids have cell phones to track each other down now. Regardless, how would you instruct the car to “cruise” around the neighborhood?

Somewhat different, but similarly, it’s an American tradition to cruise around certain cities and during certain events. Think about the mall and monument area in Washington D.C. during cherry blossom season, or the lake front on the Fourth of July.

People routinely stop and then go forward very slowly. It’s terrible traffic if you’re trying to get somewhere, but if you’re there to check out the views, you just roll down your windows and “cruise” at a very, very slow speed. People try to pull over and others let them through. People park, people pull in, people pull out. Will driverless cars really understand all of these human interactions?

Overall Reliability

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, because I am nothing but impressed by everything I hear about self-driving car technology, and I am certain I will have one before long. That said, my Wifi sometimes goes out at home. There are “dead spots” in my house where I don’t get good cell phone reception. The satellite radio in my car goes silent when I go under a bridge. My A.M. radio gets static when I am driving downtown. Sometimes the power goes out in my entire neighborhood. All of these problems are rare and intermittent — most of these technologies are extremely reliable, but parts do break; software sometimes has problems; power and reception can be spotty. I can live without the A.M. radio in my car, and I can survive a few hours without Wifi in my house, but what if I need to get somewhere and the software in my self-driving car malfunctions? What if my car needs a software update and the power goes off in my house overnight? What about driving through a tunnel in the mountains? Do we know self-driving cars will be able to get whatever info they need to operate safely while driving inside a mountain?

Special Situations

As rare as this may be, what if you have a genuine medical emergency and you choose to speed over the limit? Using your human intellect, you decide that you’re willing to take the risk of getting pulled over after you determine that you probably won’t cause an accident or get a ticket and the medical situation demands a quick response? Will the driverless car allow you to make that decision and take that calculated risk? Even more rare, but what if robbers or violent criminals are trying to chase you? I know that’s extremely rare, but what if? Would your self-driving car be able to increase its speed to keep you safe?

I know this is also a very rare use, but I’ve done it more than once and I have pics to prove it. My brother in law and I would go to canyons near the desert and he would literally drive his pickup truck up the river bed to gain elevation and to get us nearer the waterfalls. The water was about 10–20 inches deep and he had his transmission jacked up a little higher than normal. He would just drive real slowly and avoid the boulders — most but not all of the rocks in the riverbed were small and easy to drive over. Imagine how a self driving car would deal with that.

Electric Cars,….More Generally

While this particular issue is not exclusively about automated driving, it does relate to electric cars, and the two are closely related. I was recently at ski resort, but this example would also apply to places like national parks and amusement parks. Near the ski lodge, there are condos and adjacent parking areas. There was a specific row in the lot for electric vehicles to plug in and charge. What if you really need to charge your car and all of the charging spots are taken? The people who own those cars could be asleep in the condos or on the mountain skiing and you have no idea when they’ll be back to move their car. To that end, there will be huge demand for analytics that can help predict how many charges (including the different types of chargers) will be required, how to get the charges properly placed in the lots, and what to do when people park overnight.

How Many People Will Give Up Their Car?

Combine the notion of self-driving cars with the popularity of ridesharing services, and many people think individuals will cease to actually own cars. Why own a car, if you can call a self-driving ride-share service anytime you need one? First, I question just how many people will be willing to totally give up owning a personal vehicle. I suspect that most upper (and some middle) class families will own a car for several decades to come. Families may choose to own only one car in the future, rather than two or three like many families do now, but I suspect that most families will want at least one personal vehicle where they store soccer or golf equipment, extra diapers and some snacks for the kids. Some wealthy people will want to own a fancy self-driving car for its status. People will probably customize their cars for comfort and pleasure (and to impress friends). And for that matter, how do we know there will be enough self-driving, ride-sharing cars in remote places like the mountains or national parks. That said, car ownership among single people and many families will probably decrease significantly over the next few decades, and business leaders (especially car manufacturers and auto service providers) will have to adjust to this disruption.

In Conclusion…..

I do believe that autonomous car will eventually become the norm. The questions that remain include How quickly will autonomous cars become ubiquitous?, What industries will be impacted?, How will culture change in response to self-driving cars?, and How will businesses adjust through the transitionary period?

YOUR thoughts,…… and YOUR questions?