Freedom. It is an inalienable human right, but something that individuals have strived to obtain and maintain since the earliest days of civilization. Freedom comes in many forms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, just to name a few. To the automotive enthusiast, however, one of our most valued freedoms is that of movement. To have the ability to, at any instant and at a moment’s notice, jump into our car or truck and travel wherever the road might take us is an incredible thing, and for some, roads aren’t even a requirement. Granted, there are borders that are restrictive and jobs and other responsibilities that often keep us at home, but the freedom of movement that comes with the ownership of an automobile is truly astounding.
One of the first tastes of real freedom that we experience as an adolescent is when we have our own car (or use of someone else’s) to go out and do whatever we might want to. Before then, we were limited to how far our feet or bikes would take us, or to places where our parents or older siblings were willing to drive us. With keys in our own hands, however, we could start to chart our own paths: meeting up with friends on our own timetable, finding a job that we could get ourselves to on time with no reliance on anyone else, or taking a long trip to see some faraway place for no other reason than because we could.
Image credit: Tau Zero
Consider those living here in the United States at the turn of the last century. A person may have owned a horse, but that only gets you about 25 miles per day down the road – many of us drive that far every day, twice a day, just to go to work. There were trains, but those run on a schedule of their own and only to certain places. Motorcycles were starting to become an option, but the freedom that comes with individual ownership of an automobile must have been a very foreign concept for most around the time that the first Model T rolled off the production line in 1908. In 1920, less than one in ten people in the U.S. owned an automobile, so this freedom was limited to the wealthy. But in the ‘50s, there was one car on the road for every three people. In 1970, it was up to one for every two, and that number continued to rise slowly in the following decades, peaking at 842.6 vehicles per 1000 people in 2007 (per USDoE, though IHS Automotive thinks we are yet to reach “peak car”).
For better or worse, car ownership has shaped our cities and towns for the better part of the last century, and now we find ourselves at a turning point. Many of our cities are clogged with traffic several times a day, which sometimes leads to unhealthy smog. There are worries that human activity could be changing the world’s climate in a perhaps irreversible way. The collective sum of each of our individual desires for freedom of movement at times leaves us caged, sitting in our two-ton machines, surrounded by hundreds of others on a seemingly endless ribbon of asphalt. As much as you might love to drive, no one enjoys sitting in traffic, inching along, riding a perpetual Slinky of steel, glass and rubber.
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There are many smart people working to solve this problem and billions of dollars being invested – teams at Google, Tesla, Apple, Ford (which now refers to itself as a “mobility company”) and the far-from-farsical Faraday Future just to name a few – and some of the potential solutions come with real trepidation for us, the enthusiasts, and for good reason. This topic has been broached on the pages of RFD before, as well. It’s not too hard to envision a future where governments and insurance companies decree that it’s just too risky to let a human pilot an automobile when a computer can do it, on average, so much more safely. Any possible loss of freedom is always a legitimate cause for concern. But while it is a distinct possibility that we could lose some rights, that day seems very far off to me, so I choose to focus on the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, or autonomobiles, if you will, and I believe that the additional freedoms that they will offer for many will outweigh the potential downsides for the few.
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Benefits to the Commuter
Some people couldn’t care less about driving, and only do it because they must to get from point A to point B in a timely matter. They view their cars only as appliances, and only care to have a vehicle that is reliable, safe and comfortable. If they could purchase or rent an automobile that is all these things, and drives itself, they’d be overjoyed to have the time of their commute back to work on important things such as crushing candy, Snapchatting it up with their friends, or keeping up with the Jenners.
Benefits to the Traveler
Imagine packing up your family for a long journey in the evening, setting your destination, going to sleep and then waking up 500 miles closer to your destination. This is terribly appealing idea to me. My extended family is large and spread far and wide, and flying my own family of five can be very cost-prohibitive. I love a good road trip, but my eyes don’t work as well at night as they once did, so I can’t drive into the wee hours of the night like I did in my college days. Being able to use the hours when a driver would otherwise be sleeping to chip away at a cross-country road trip is a great benefit to travelers. Only motel owners would shed any tears about this.
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Benefits to the Parent
Some people are already using Uber to shuttle their kids to and from school and practice, which rightfully raises the eyebrows of many. However, as any parent knows, it is a real challenge to juggle requirements of work, and life in general, with the needs of a child or children who must be ferried from place to place for their various activities. A whole other discussion can be had on how beneficial all of this is for our progeny, but the fact of the matter is that this is the norm for the majority of families these days. As a dad of three kids, who will soon have all three in a full slate of sports and other after-school interests, I can see one day trusting a robot to come to my doorstep and welcome my son or daughter into its inoffensive confines, and then to safely and efficiently transport him or her to the door of their school or gym. Call me crazy, but I believe I’d trust a benevolent robot far more than a human driver that I had never met before.
Benefits to the Drinker & Smoker (and those that share the road with them)
We, as a society, like to tip them back and light them up. And while how you pursue your happiness is very little of my business, I’d prefer you not do so prior to piloting anything with an impetus of over 55 thousand newtons. Uber has given life and legality to many intoxicating pursuits that were, heretofore, inadvisable, and autonomous vehicles will do the same. The real question is really only this: who will clean up the car after the rider stumbles out?
Benefits to the Aged, Handicapped and Blind
This is where I see the greatest benefit of autonomous cars, and this has become more evident to me in recent months, as my own father is getting up in years and wants to drive long distances less and less. Consider for yourself, as one who loves to drive, how hard it will be to hand over your keys when your faculties are no longer up to the task of driving a car. You not only will be giving up something you love doing, but also much of your personal freedom. After perhaps 70 years of being able to go anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted, you’ll once again be dependent on others to get you where you want to go. Autonomous vehicles could provide much of the freedom and self-sufficiency that people often lose later in life, as well as provide incredible mobility for blind people and those with certain handicaps. Individuals who never thought they could possibly have the freedom of an automobile could now own a car with a super-intelligent chauffeur to take them anywhere they’d like to go. How great is that?
Image credit: Virginia Tech University
Benefits to the Enthusiast
Assuming, of course, that we still get to flog our hydrocarbon quaffing, three-pedaled, drive-by-no-wire relics on public roads, and that there are automakers that will continue to offer for sale cars and trucks that appeal to our baser natures, the advent of autonomous vehicles could be a great thing for those of us that love driving. No longer will the texting Corolla driver be occupying the passing lane at one m per h under the speed limit, oblivious to the scads of drivers shooting dirty looks as they zip past on the right. No more will semis practice their delicate, synchronized sumo ballet, one trying to pass the others over the course of ten miles up long, gentle grades. Autonomous cars will surely prefer major interstates, leaving the back roads more vacant for our never-ending pursuit of lateral gs. And, Mr. or Ms. Enthusiast, if you also happen to be a commuter, traveler, parent, drinker/smoker, or if you will one day be old, you can benefit from the aforementioned freedoms whenever your heart may desire, if you purchase or rent a car equipped with this new autononimity.
Regardless of your personal thoughts on this new technology, the change is happening my friends, and it’s best if we accept it and learn how we can continue to freely exercise our enthusiastic endeavors in, amongst and between the coming autonomobiles.