Forget flying cars. The next innovation will be vehicles you don’t even have to drive. But would we actually put our lives in the hands of a computer-controlled car?
Earlier this month KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research released a report not only predicting that we’ll eventually be driving – or, rather, not driving – autonomous cars, but that they’ll be in showrooms as early as 2019. Maybe even sooner.
“In the early decades of the 21st century, the industry appears to be on the cusp of revolutionary change,” the report’s authors write. “The revolution, when it comes, will be engendered by the advent of autonomous or ‘self-driving’ vehicles. And the timing may be sooner than you think.”
The industry has been experimenting with self-driving elements for years. In fact, the tinkering has been going on since the 1950s and General Motors’ Firebird II, which was designed to be guided along the highway by an electrical wire embedded in the road.
But a number of cars today have computers and sensors handling more and more basic driving functions while increasing safety. Think of vehicles that parallel park themselves or ones that actively avoid collisions. And Google employees have driven some 200,000 miles in the company’s experimental self-driving cars.
So it’s only a matter of time before some of these technologies are combined in a way to create a truly driverless vehicle. Most industry analysts think that time is at least a decade in the future. The latest report is the first to predict that it’s only a handful of years away.
Even so, it’s no sure thing that this prediction will come true. The technology will need to get smarter before 2019. The report’s authors explain that “sensor-based technologies” and “connected-vehicle communications” need to converge. Essentially, cars need to be able to communicate with other vehicles on the road so they don’t bash into each other. They also need the ability to sense and respond to the surrounding infrastructure: stop signs, street lights, guardrails, and many other basic transportation signals.
Tom Baloga, U.S. vice president of engineering at BMW – another automaker that’s been testing driverless features — told Reuters: “The days of George Jetson getting in the vehicle, saying ‘to the office’ and then reading a newspaper, we don’t envision for an awful long time.”
Theoretically, those technological obstacles seem surmountable. Most of the big name automakers – Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, Honda, Hyundai and others – have been experimenting with self-driving elements for years. The real question is whether we would even drive these things.
“The socialization of autonomous driving is actually the difficult part,” John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager for environmental, safety and quality issues, told Reuters. “The invention of the vehicle is the easy part.”
But sentiment in favor of self-driving cars is growing. According to a J.D. Power study, 37% of U.S. vehicle owners are at least interested in autonomous cars, although only 20% of respondents said they “definitely would” or “probably would” purchase self-driving features in their car if it added $3,000 to the sticker price.
As we get used to more and more technology in every aspect of our lives, our attitudes toward self-driving vehicles will likely become more and more accepting. If we can’t have flying cars, we might as well be able to be able to play with out tablet computers while we get driven home from work.