The end of the car is nigh?

Driving as we know it could cease to be necessary, or even possible, within the next decade

By Shahzad Sheikh

Self-driving cars by 2025

‘Stang Struck – a story about a future without cars as we know them

Two years ago I wrote a sci-fi short story (which you can read here) in which people travelled around in personal transporter pods and cars that you could actually drive were not only history, but in fact outlawed!

I wish it were the case that it was just purely a fanciful work of fiction that would remain little more than an intriguing fantasy in my head – and something of a personal horror story for petrolheads like you and me. However, when I visited Honda’s R&D facility in Tochigi, Japan last year, I rode in a car that drove itself around an obstacle course and successfully avoided hitting things without human intervention. It was a rudimentary test mind, on a set course. But it proved a point.

Even more appealing was the automatic valet parking system being developed for malls. You leave your car at the entrance and it goes and parks itself. After you’re done window shopping, eating far too much in the food court and you want to head home, you simply message it and it’ll come back and meet you at the door.

Self-driving cars by 2025

Whilst these were carefully orchestrated demonstrations, another company, Mercedes, enabled one of its S500 models to go 125km on real roads through real cities driving itself, using mostly the standard array of cameras, radars and sensors that the S-Class flagship already comes equipped with – nothing like that ridiculous box of bits planted on top of that stupid-looking Google self-driving car that was revealed a few months back (also tentatively slated for production).

I guess Mercedes just wanted to rub everyone else’s nose in it quite honestly, showcasing the fact that its cars already had the technology built-in today to drive themselves, credibly backing the Three-Pointed Star’s claim that it will be offering autonomous drive systems in some of its cars by the year 2020. Yep that’s just barely over five years away.

Self-driving cars by 2025

What do the people that know, know?

In a recent report by Pew Research Centre, ‘AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs’, nearly all the experts polled stated their belief that self-driving cars would be in widespread use on our roads by 2025.

‘Self-driving vehicles promise to upend existing approaches to car ownership, car design, car sales and insurance, urban planning, logistics, deliveries, taxi services, etc. That will be a big change, as significant as the advent of smartphones,’ Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist, wrote in the report.

‘Technology will continue to make things better, faster, cheaper and safer: the impact of self-driving cars alone will be immense in terms of reduced traffic congestion, lower costs for insurance and transport, and driver safety,’ added Robert Bell of IntelligentCommunity.org.

Self-driving cars by 2025

But to my mind, the most chilling aspect of these predictions came from Andrew Rens, chief council at the Shuttleworth Foundation who wrote: ‘AI and robotics will change the way that Western society thinks about cars. Once control over driving passes to software the romance of cars will diminish. There will be far less cachet in owning large and powerful cars since the riding (rather than driving) experience will be indistinguishable.’

So that’s that then, hey? You might as well stop reading motoring websites and I might as well retrain as a road sweeper I suppose. Oh wait, robots will be doing that too, doh!

As it is, interest in cars is waning, less and less of the younger generation are even bothering to learn how to drive, let alone save up their pennies desperately to buy their own first car. And to be honest, considering how expensive and difficult driving lessons are becoming and the rising cost of insurance for new drivers, you can’t really blame them.

Why do they need to bother? In the future their smartphone – or whatever device replaces THAT – will simply summon a transport pod of some kind the moment it gets a hint from its master that they wish to go somewhere, with the destination already pre-programmed in.

Self-driving cars by 2025

So does that mean we have 10 years to burn rubber before we all, as gearheads, make some sort of mass-suicide pact since we obviously can’t live in a world without cars?

Well hold off just a minute there.

We’re not ready to relinquish control just quite yet

Another expert in the same report was more cautionary about the timescale involved: ‘Driving has been a human activity from the start, with century-old norms and a regulatory framework spanning global, national, interstate, state and local jurisdictions. Getting self-driving cars to work within all of that, and for regulations to adapt as well, seems a tall order that will require a lot of time and many trials and errors along the way.

‘If it happens, 2025 is probably too early a date for seeing lots of self-driving cars, except perhaps in a few isolated geographies,’ wrote Doc Searls of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Self-driving cars by 2025

He goes on to make an interesting hypothesis about how the US insurance industry might not be too keen to allow widespread self-driving cars considering the income shortfall they would experience as road risks dramatically decrease. You may argue that they’ll benefit from fewer costs as casualties and repair bills from traffic incidents fall off, but don’t forget that the insurance industry still has to offset that against other outlays – natural disasters for example wouldn’t suddenly cease to occur. With global warming, they might actually increase.

And then there’s the trust issue. A program director focusing on ICT standards policy, Internet Governance and other issues, wrote of robotics and AI in 2025 that: ‘It will still be limited. Although we can already do some pretty cool stuff, there will still be plenty of kinks and bugs and vulnerabilities that need to be resolved before market confidence will be widespread.’ It’s safe to assume this applies to self-driving cars too.

Meanwhile a professor at a major U.S. business school was even more dismissive: ‘Automated cars will not make it into use – this is way harder than anybody is letting on in public conversation.’

Self-driving cars by 2025

But from Rens above who worried me the most with his statement about the romance of cars diminishing, also comes (indirectly) the greatest ray of hope – the ‘Machine Free’ movement.

‘The rise of AI and robots will also likely change extreme sports and outdoor pursuits not by increased reliance on AI and robotics but by provoking a movement to purge extreme sports of them. Extreme sports and outdoor pursuits such as hunting are one area of life that encourages immersion in the natural world, self-reliance, and human excellence.

‘As other areas of life become increasingly dominated by machines that are faster, more accurate, and more reliable than humans, outdoor pursuits and extreme sports will become increasingly valuable to a substantial minority as they seek to carve out space from a frenetically connected world.

‘The perception of extreme sports and outdoor pursuits as a machine-free zone will provoke debate about the ethics of relying on machines. A significant minority of sportspeople will attempt complete human self-reliance, even refusing current technologies such as GPS except in emergencies.’

Self-driving cars by 2025

Spock fails to comprehend why Kirk would climb a mountain without even a safety harness and with all that effort when he can just get up there on a pair of anti-grav boots. Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean we’ll all use it

So will I still be excited about test driving cars in 10-years time?

Yes, I think so. Look at it this way: people have been taking about the end of the manual transmission in cars for decades, and whilst it’s so much harder to get a manual car now, particularly in our part of the world, it’s not yet completely impossible. Manufacturers are still putting them out in brand new cars, maybe not for much longer, but the good old self-shifter has not simply gone quietly into the night.

I do believe there will be a long-period of coexistence even when automated cars do become widely available, which I’m certain will indeed start to happen by 2025. There has to be a long period of legislative realignment, economic repositioning and, most importantly, acceptance amongst consumers before we abandon driving duties.

And even with automated cars (and unlike the mooted Google car) I think there will still be a steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals, because owners will want to have the back-up of knowing that they can and occasionally will resume control of the car.

Knight Rider - self-driving car

Think of KITT from Knight Rider. The Knight Industries 2000 could actually handle all the driving duties, but Michael Knight still did most of it anyway. KITT would normally take over for the long miles between States as Michael slept in preparation for his next assignment.

Plus, as Rens suggests, people like to go out and do stuff for themselves. What’s the point in doing a track day if you’re not driving? A day out off-roading would be far less satisfying if a computer got you to that stunning location.

We, driving enthusiasts, may dwindle in numbers gradually, but those wishing to engage personally with our vehicles will be around for a long time yet. Manufacturers recognise this and industry and big business relies on it, even as science and innovation races ahead to its goal of creating an ultimately self-reliant AI entity that will eventually realise that us squishy humanoids just mess the place up, would be best digitised and stored in a server somewhere. Oo er!

Self-driving cars by 2025

Sportscars to be frozen in time

Of course this means that the onus is on the car designers and engineers of today to produce the pinnacle of the sportscar within the next decade, because this is the last chance they’ll get. Huh? Well as investment and R&D switches to automated zero-emission transport pods, development in sporting vehicles will naturally be pulled back.

But in the same way that cars like antiquated Land Rover Defender and Caterham 7 are still made today, although there’s been hardly any evolution of them at all, whilst people still want and are prepared to buy them, someone will continue to make them. Conceivably that means that the best drivers cars that we have now or in the very near future will be the best drivers cars we will ever have. Think about that car designers and engineers – no pressure.

Alternatively we can all be secret road-warrior rebels, keeping the classics alive and shocking the self-driving status quo – just like in my sci-fi short. AIs, go ahead, catch me if you can!

http://motoringme.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/CaterhamSS_1.jpg

The Caterham 7 will live till the end of time

Is the end of the car nigh? Tell us what you think. Will it be a good thing, or are you dreading driverless cars? Comment below

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