Autonomy before Flight

When I was a child, I often thought of the novelty of flying cars. In many of my friends’ heads, flying cars would only just be “cool.” In my head, however, flying cars would truly indicate a shift from “today’s” society into this notion I had of a “future” society. I had this idea that there would actually be some physical event — an exact moment — where we as humans advanced into this “future ideal,” where flying cars were just another reality of a world with much more interesting technologies.

As I grew older — perhaps into my early teenage years — I realized that people from previous generations had already had these particular types of musings about the future but rather in reference to today’s society. They had subsequently expected flying cars to be a thing of their (as children) future — the now “present.” I started to realize that humans were further off from flying cars than I had expected, perhaps something that would not be achieved during my lifetime. This is also when I started to realize, however, that the journey towards a “future ideal,” one that is characterized by flying cars, was already well in place.

Since flying cars seem to be unfeasible for at least the current generation, it might be better to look at a more simple advancement in cars’ technologies. One could argue that cars must be autonomous, or self-driving, before they can fly. Although autonomy itself has little to do with the feature of flying, the greater implications of a proven autonomous technology might allow future scientists to work towards something such as flight technology.

I remember when my father purchased a car that was considered “semi-autonomous.” The technology in the car was amazing at the time — it allowed the car to stop itself when approaching another vehicle and to accelerate and decelerate on its own. Today, many mid-tier cars have made such technology commonplace, but at the time of my dad’s purchase (maybe seven years ago), that type of technology was unfathomable. Now, humans are beginning to build truly autonomous cars, not ones that use sensors and lasers to construct a rudimentary cruise control system, but ones that truly “see” the road and process large quantities of data in order to do so.

This type of autonomous car has become yet another factor in the ever-growing realm of the Internet of Things (IoT). As I grow older, I start to realize on a deeper level that IoT IS the “future ideal” I originally sought after. I didn’t know it at the time of my youth, but mechanisms were already well in place before I was born, building the infrastructure of what I had considered the “future.” This future characterized by IoT will, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin says,

“connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform…”

It is easy for one to see autonomous cars as an example of this movement. The new wave of autonomous cars uses hardware such as cameras, visual sensors, orientation and body-roll sensors, and other data sensing equipment that feeds into the internet and uses data analysis to create an “image” of the road ahead for a car’s computer. The car can physically recognize things such as pedestrians, speed limits, weather conditions, and time of day, solely from internal and cloud computing of collected data.

The future of this technology seems to lie in creating a network of autonomous cars that work off one another’s collected data, creating a virtual landscape accessible by cloud that is made up of factors such as: how fast other cars are going, where other cars are going, and what technical problems other cars might be dealing with — low tire pressure, bent axles, etc.

This “Big Data” is coming to characterize all facets of IoT. As Rifkin describes it,

“Big Data will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies [and] dramatically increase productivity.”

Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan would probably argue that many examples of the IoT support his notion of:

“the medium is m[e]ssage.”

Take the autonomous car, for instance. Does it change the way that people drive? Does it change the way people think about driving? McLuhan admits he thinks of the idea of a medium in a very broad sense. Perhaps cars aren’t the typical medium, such as a piece of paper or a word document, yet McLuhan argues that a medium can be anything that affects society based on its particular characteristics. In the example of a light bulb, something that carries no value or content like that of a letter or a note, it still changes one’s way of perceiving and experiencing because

“a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”

One can view cars as a particular medium, allowing humans to experience the world in a way that could not be experienced in the past. The rise of IoT and the subsequent implementation of autonomous driving will without a doubt also change the experience and perception of how people travel, commute — of how people live. All of this change happens gradually yet instantaneously. It is something that cannot be tangibly seen; it is happening all the time, never stopping. I have begun to realize that the notion of a “future ideal” will never be achieved because it is being reached every second of every day. Eventually people will accept autonomous cars as commonplace, and yet a new “future ideal” will be created and done away with within the timeframe of a day.

An example of autonomous vehicles:

Companies such as Tesla are at the forefront of research when it comes to autonomous driving. CEO Elon Musk claims that Tesla’s vehicles will be “completely autonomous” within the next two years. It looks like the results may speak for themselves.