Saturday, November 24, 2012

Self Driving Cars

Whether called "driverless cars" or "robo-cars" the, "auto" mobiles are coming. And although like all new technologies they will bring with them a new set of yet unknown problems, they are being developed  to solve an existing set of problems most of us would like to eliminate.

There has been a lot written about robotic cars and the reader can spend an afternoon reading about the success of, for example the Google car.

While a completely machine-driven vehicle is not on the market today, there are several developments in recent years where sensors and microprocessors already adjust the operation of a vehicle without the driver knowing about it. Anti-lock brakes is one example, as is the parking-assist feature that uses a rear-bumper sensor and other automation technologies.

Many say that once the market is saturated with autonomous vehicles, there will be a reduction in personal ownership of cars in favor of hiring them on demand. After all, a fleet of robot vehicles could easily contain the technology to drive themselves to a person's home when he calls for one via computer. After taking the passenger to the directed location, the vehicle would leave the scene and park itself (perhaps with other idle vehicles) so as to take up as little surface street/lot area as possible.

The system of robots for hire would have a number of ramifications, many of which no doubt I have not thought of yet. But one of them would be to ultimately reduce the competitive nature of car ownership that seems to have dominated the auto culture since the 1950s.

The commodification of cars as suggested by automated cars-for-hire has implications for the physical care and condition that private ownership has in the past addressed. For example, what happens when a renter of these auto-mobiles on demand uses one and leaves trash strewn about the interior or otherwise stains and leaves the interior dirty? The anonymity of the usage of this kind of automobile means that people might be more likely to leave their empties or not clean up after themselves like they would in a public place such as a  bus or subway car staffed by the mass transit operator.

For this reason it may be that driverless cars that we don't own but rather hire on demand will have to look a lot different from the comfortable compartments we know today. For example, they will likely  not have cloth seats but rather hard plastic seats and floors in much the same way that many subway and bus systems.

Like the technological change to sports officiating (see other post) the new driverless cars are certainly feasible within a short time but the test will be whether the public and government (law enforcement, etc.) will accept them. I'm afraid that a lot of people are emotionally attached to owning their own car, one with comfortable cloth seats and carpets and that are bigger, faster and shinier than their neighbors'. This may be the primary obstacle to adoption.

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