Is The Self-Driving Car Part of Our Elysium?

Mike Gulett
Oct 31 · 13 min read

Self-driving cars, or autonomous cars, have been a dream of dreamers almost since the automobile was invented.

Norman Bel Geddes, the 20th century industrial designer, futurists and pioneer of streamline design said in his 1940 book, Magic Motorways,

These cars of 1960 and the highways on which they drive will have in them devices which will correct the faults of human beings as drivers. They will prevent the driver from committing errors. They will prevent his turning out into traffic except when he should. They will aid him in passing through intersections without slowing down or causing anyone else to do so and without endangering himself or others.

Streamline car design by Norman Bel Geddes — Source- A. Van Dyke

Bel Geddes was the creator of Futurama, a diorama sponsored by General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which forecast the future for automobile transportation and was the most popular exhibit at this World’s fair.

Business Week wrote about the 1939 Futurama, and described how the exhibit was filled to capacity at 30,000 people per day who wait “in long queues until they reach the chairs, which transport them to a tourist’s paradise. It unfolds a prophecy of cities, towns, and country sides served by a comprehensive road system. Somewhere in the rolling davenport a disembodied angel explains the Elysium.”

This 1939 exhibit predicted a future that did not entirely come true by 1960 but some of it did eventually come true and now we are on the threshold of seeing Bel Geddes’ “devices which will correct the faults of human beings as drivers” in some new cars and eventually in all new cars and trucks.

This new technology is exceedingly complex and may take longer to become commonplace than anticipated by the companies working on self-driven cars like Google who has promised that their self-driven car will be available by 2020.

Notice the similar shape of the Google self-driven car to the Bel Geddes Streamline Design above — Source- Google

Google

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, wrote in a Google US Securities and Exchange Commission filing on June 3, 2015,

The increasing power of computation extends well beyond the internet. One example close to my heart is our self-driving car project. The goal is to make cars capable of driving themselves entirely without human intervention. We hope to make roadways far safer and transportation far more affordable and accessible to those who can’t drive.

To do this, we can now rely on immense processing power and advanced sensors that would not have been possible only a few years ago. And while it will still take time before we see self-driving cars everywhere on our streets, over a million auto fatalities per year worldwide make this a risk worth taking. As I write, our cars have just crossed 1 million miles of autonomous driving, and our fully self-driving vehicle prototype is about to begin testing in our hometown.

This Google vision is closer to reality than the Bel Geddes vision in 1940 but the vision before the capability is important because the vision motivates the creators to make it come true.

The prime motivation for Google to develop self-driving, or autonomous cars, is safety as Brin wrote one million people die each year worldwide in automobile accidents. The second Google motivation is to allow those who cannot drive, for whatever reason, to have access to the automobile and the third motivation is to make transportation far more affordable. It is not obvious to me that this third motivation will be a result of self-driving cars but time will tell.

Google is so confident in the self-driving car that they “removed the steering wheel and pedals, and instead designed a prototype that lets the software and sensors handle the driving”. Look mom no steering wheel! According to Google the “interior is designed for riding not driving”.

Automobile Improvements

Automobile engineers have been making automobiles easier to use since they were invented with features like: the electric starter, power steering and brakes, cruise control, GPS mapping and directions, adaptive cruise control, self parallel parking, driver drowsiness detection and others.

These technology advances have allowed for drivers who could not have started a car manually before the electric starter or who could not have driven a car without power steering or power brakes. Technology has made the automobile available to more people who otherwise would be relegated to passenger status only. Now we are heading into a new era where anyone can use an automobile even if they do not know how to drive, have a driver’s license or have the capability to drive a car such as a blind person or someone with a handicap that prevents driving a car. Not only does the fully self-driving automobile not need a driver it also doesn’t need passengers!

Concept of self-driven car from electricity companies on the 1950s

The technology for self-driving cars seems to have advanced faster than anticipated by most people but this capability is built on the shoulders of other technology, like semiconductor technology, that has progressed at an astonishing rate in the past few decades driven by the requirement for semiconductor companies to keep pace with Moore’s Law (a doubling of complexity every 18 to 24 months).

The technology needed to build a fully self-driven automobile is not intrinsic automobile technology but is based on the enormous advances in semiconductor technology, as mentioned, along with advances in software, optics, sensors, lasers and artificial intelligence. This is why a company like Google, or Apple, who are not automobile companies, can develop self-driving automobile technology. The traditional automobile companies can do the same if they hire the appropriate engineers and apply them to the task.

Society acceptance, changes to the norm, legal issues, insurance questions and the threat of hacking — not the technical limitations of self-driving cars, will determine when autonomous cars become commonplace.

Society

When the autonomous car becomes commonplace it will create huge changes. Imagine driving to work and not needing to worry about parking. The car will drop you off at your work place and then drive itself to the nearest available parking space which may be outside the city center and need not be near your work place. These designated parking lots will be in locations where the land is cheaper than near the work centers. At the programmed time, or when you summon the car, it will start up and meet you at any destination you choose.

There will be more free time in the commute to and from work when driving is not managed by a person. Men can shave and women can put on their makeup while driving to work like many do now anyway but in a self-driven car they will be perfectly safe. The commuter could also take a nap or read, work, talk on the telephone, send and read email and many other things during the commute. With so much extra free time it may allow people to live further away from their work because the time commuting is not wasted as much as it is in a manually driven car.

You may also use the same car to transport more than one family member. After the self-driven car drops you off at work it may drive back home and pick up another family member and take them to work or school. These passengers can be unlicensed drivers such as children.

Self-driving cars will run errands like going to the store where pre-ordered items would be waiting and the store employees would load the car and the car would drive itself back home.

There may be more miles driven in total as the self-driven car runs errands, parks itself further away and shuttles back and forth between family members increasing driving miles and increasing fuel usage per person and maybe reducing the number of cars needed.

Taxicabs would not need a driver if they were self-driven, remember the Johnny Cab from the movie Total Recall? Uber cars, or other similar services, will not need drivers either.

Freight truck drivers could drive longer distances between sleeping and thus reduce the number of drivers needed and eventually freight truck drivers will not be needed either. The many businesses that service truck drivers like road side motels and truck stops will also see a big drop in their business when truck drivers are replaced by robot trucks.

Another vision of a self-driven car from 1967 — yet they still are smoking cigarettes

Is it possible that people would drink more alcohol (in addition to smoking cigarettes) because a self-driving car would drive them home from the pub or restaurant, essentially a built in designated driver? This built in designated driver should eliminate drunk driving accidents. Would it become legal for passengers in a self-driven car to drink alcohol while they are riding?

Privacy and Hackers

There is a big opportunity for a further loss of privacy and security with all of the technology that comes with a self-driven car. A person’s location would be known and the history of where one went and how long one stayed at each location would all be recorded and probably stored in the cloud somewhere.

Hackers getting access to this information could cause havoc. And not just financial information; if a burglar knew someone’s location and travel schedule, they could plan their burgling accordingly. Or worse things could happen if malicious hackers gained access to the controls of a self-driven car.

Roads may need to be better maintained like the lane lines, cross walk paint, signs and other visual cues that the self-driven car needs to get around. This may increase the infrastructure cost.

There will be an increased need for products like software applications, services, special hardware and other items related to the self-driven car creating many new business opportunities.

There very well could be a shift in the economic power away from the traditional car companies to companies that are good with this new technology but who may not be traditional car companies. This type of shift has happened many times in the past when a new disruptive technology creates a strategic advantage for companies who can master the new technology better than the established companies.

Legal and Ethics

An attorney for the California Department of Motor Vehicles raised concerns that “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” citing state laws that “all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle”. According to The New York Times, policy makers and regulators have argued that new laws will be required if driverless vehicles are to become a reality because “the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages”. Source: Wikipedia.

It is not uncommon for new technology to outstrip the legal system. The Internet has been in this position for many years and is still not yet all sorted out. Self-driving cars will be in a legal unknown land for a few years.

All self-driven cars would have the technical capability to read and store every license plate on every car they pass, either a moving car or a parked car. This information could be digitized, matched with the time and GPS coordinates and stored in the cloud somewhere, along with the name of the owner. This would create a record of where each and every car passed by the self-driven car was at a specific time. Would it be legal to collect and store this information?

This capability exists today on some police cars and stationary cameras for law enforcement purposes. When self-driven cars are commonplace, if this information were collected and stored, then it would be possible to track the movements of virtually every car and likely nearly every person in those cars.

How would the car insurance industry change to take into account self-driven cars? Who would be legally responsible for an accident in self-driving mode, the owner or the carmaker? What if a driver was driving manually and had an accident with a car in self-driving mode would the manual driver be at a legal disadvantage because of the low probability that a self-driven car can make a mistake and the high probability that a human can make a mistake?

Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

The self-driving car is perhaps the first practical and useful application of personal robots that many people will own, interact with and use regularly. I wonder if society will require these robots to follow Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics? Asimov was a writer, mainly of science fiction, and a biochemistry professor.

The laws are written in order of priority for the robot.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the

First or Second Laws

Is the safety of the humans inside the car a higher priority than humans outside the car?

What decision would the self-driving car make if there were an unavoidable choice between running into a crowd of ten people or driving off a cliff killing only the one passenger? What would the answer be if the car is not owned by the passenger but is a rental car or taxicab? Would the rental car company or the taxicab company be allowed to specify that the programming make such decisions in a way that reduces their legal liability independent of the moral implications?

Is speeding or breaking a minor traffic law ever acceptable for a self-driven car? These rules will be programed into the car and may not be changeable by the owner unless the owner switches to manual driving mode.

Speed limits for each location must be available to the car, either by being transmitted wirelessly or by the car reading the speed limit signs. When speed limits change temporarily such as when there is local construction the car needs to know.

If a self-driven car exceeds the speed limit who gets the speeding ticket? Is it the passenger, who presumably did nothing, or the car manufacturer, who may have a program error?

Driving Laws

Driving laws from different locations must be programed into the car or be available from a wireless connection because driving laws vary by location even in the US all states do not have exactly the same driving laws.

In order to fully take advantage of the self-driving technology laws would need to change in order to allow non-drivers (children or anyone without a driver’s license) to occupy a self-driven car without a licensed driver and to allow a self-driven car to be unoccupied.

In the long-term future it may be illegal for a person to drive a car and only self-driven cars will be allowed on public roads because of safety. This could happen in different countries and different states in the US at different times and maybe in some cities before other locations.

The United States has a deep-rooted culture of individual freedom taking priority over the group. Taking away the right to drive a car would be extremely difficult in the US. Over time as more than one generation become accustomed to self-driving cars many people may not see the need to learn to drive and eventually there will be very few licensed drivers. Cars will be self-driven naturally because few people will want to drive. This is similar to how the number of people who know how to ride a horse, and actually do ride a horse, has dropped dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century.

There must be an exception for the classic car owner and driver because it is unlikely that the right to drive a classic car would be infringed.

Car Racing

Autonomous cars could be programmed to drive a road race car better than a human. The autonomous car could brake at just the right place, turn in at the perfect spot, hit the apex, turn out just right and move from braking to power perfectly. An autonomous race car would do all of this every time on every turn on every lap. The race would then be a race between the engineers, the designers and builders of the autonomous race cars. If every car in the race was an autonomous car then there would never be an accident except in the case of equipment failure.

In the beginning I expect we will see self-driven cars racing against identical manually driven cars piloted by the best race car drivers in a similar fashion to the chess matches we have witnessed between people and IBM computers. Like the chess matches eventually the self-driven race cars will consistently win as the IBM computers have won chess matches.

Summary

The self-driven car has the potential to be the biggest change for the automobile since the automobile was invented and could be a disruptive technology for the automobile industry. I have tried to guess some of the changes we may see when this exciting new technology is fully implemented but I know that I have missed many and will be wrong on others. The thing about new technology is that it has a tendency to go where no one can predict.

In his opening address to the 1939 New York World’s Fair (where Norman Bel Geddes presented his vision for the future) President Franklin D. Roosevelt said,

the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Our wagon is hitched to a star. But it is a star of good will, a star of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international good will, and above all, a star of peace. May the months to come carry us forward in the rays of that hope.

This rings true today for many more countries in addition to the US. Is the self-driven car part of humanities Elysium? For me it must also include the flying car, both self-driven and manual.

The Jetsons — Source: Hanna-Barbera

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Mike Gulett

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Mike Gulett worked in the technology business in Silicon Valley for many years and now lives with his wife and a few cats in Carmel. His blog is MyCarQuest.com.

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