This is the first installment of Unpopular Oppopinion. From time to time, I'm going to express an opinion that runs counter to the typical Jalop mindset concerning the automotive world.
I love to drive. It's one of my favorite activities, and with gas prices falling, I'll be able to use my "burn a tank of gas," method of therapy more frequently. For my birthday last year, my wife bought me the Gotham Dream Car Sprint, where I got to drive two cars with a combined cash value greater than double that of my house. Here's a picture. Yes, I'm a large, hairy man stuffed into a ridiculous car. It was glorious.
They had to put the top down for me to fit inside.
20 years from now, self-driving cars will be ubiquitous. The average new vehicle will be a computer controlled, automated conveyance that may or may not have the option for manual driver input. It's likely to be a very safe, efficient vehicle that is designed to ferry people around in relative boredom. This is a huge development in the automotive world, and it's being led by engineers and scientists who know far more than I do.
No, Sly, I'll drive.
This is a good thing. What enthusiasts in general fail to realize is that most people see driving as a chore they must endure to get where they need to go. For the vast majority of drivers, a car is another appliance, like a washing machine or toaster. It is simply a device purchased to do a job that needs to be done. The average new car buyer doesn't have passion like an enthusiast, and their emotional reaction to the vehicle often ends with the vehicle's image.
This is why 6-cylinder, automatic, base-model Mustangs are far more common than the GT models, and why so many people will buy a Tahoe when a Traverse or Odyssey would be a far better choice.
It's not a family vehicle unless the kids need a stepladder!
The fact of the matter is that most Americans are unskilled, distracted, and would rather be doing something other than driving. Driving tests in most states consist of little more than a quiz about traffic laws and a quick spin around the block. The desire for automatically controlled cars has been around since at least the early postwar era, when engineering and science produced the Interstate system, the space program, and rock'n'roll.
While the predictions have been coming for a long time - often far more ambitious than possible with technological limitations of the era. Like any great
vaporware technical innovation, it was always "just a few years away." Now that we live in the future, the self-driving car is now actually just a few years away.
In the course of just eight years, we've taken the self-driving car from this:
(photo credit: Carnegie Mellon University)
(not shown: a hatch full of computers) Carnegie Mellon University
to a car made by an actual auto maker, which could be commercially viable within just five years. By the time my 8 year old niece gets her driver's license, the self-driving car may actually be in showrooms.
Now, there are many advantages to the self-driving car, and these benefit the enthusiast as well as the ordinary driver. For example,
Every self-driving car that's been unleashed on public roads has been programmed to be conservative and cautious in its driving habits. They accelerate slowly, only change lanes when it's safe to do so, and maintain safe following distances. They consider all of their surroundings before making a decision. Self-driving cars have the advantage of cameras and radar sensors that can get an immediate 360° view of the car. No matter how attentive you are, you'll always have a blind spot. This is simply a disadvantage of being a talking monkey.
Beyond that, many people spend their morning commute distracted. We eat, read phones and tablets, apply makeup, shave, and do all manner of things while we drive. It's dangerous, and while the self-driving car may not eliminate all driver-distraction accidents, we may see a significant reduction in them.
People like to get intoxicated. I enjoy whiskey and beer. I find that it can get annoying having to wait several hours after Thanksgiving Dinner, where my wife and I got tipsy to tolerate family members we only see a few times a year, until one of us is able to drive home. The ubiquity of self-driving cars could definitely help reduce the number of drunk-driving accidents.
We drive when we're sleepy, and interstate driving while sleepy actually makes sleepiness worse. A constant drone of white noise, darkness only broken by repeating patterns, and a lack of other vehicles on the road all combine to lull us further into dreamland. Road trips could be taken while sleeping, and we could arrive at our destinations refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
Mobility and Convenience:
Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal has a great article about riding in one of the Google cars. In it, he addresses the mobility issue because of his own experience. I've seen the depression and anxiety that come to older people when they have to give up the keys. For many of them, it's not about not being able to drive, but the loss of personal independence. Younger readers may not have had to deal with this, but for some older people, their loss of independence can be devastating. They've worked, built homes, raised a family, and now have to call someone to get their groceries. It's a major blow to the ego.
The convenience portion is also attached to the safety section above. I'll reiterate a point I made earlier: Many people see driving as a chore. They fill their Sienna with kids, turn on the overhead DVD for the 30-minute wait in line at the school, drop them off, then begin the commute, where they'll wait in line some more. Commuting can turn driving into drudgery. A self-driving van could easily take care of all those tasks and allow the adults time to mentally prepare for work, catch up on email before arriving, and start the day earlier.
Beyond that, when it's time to have routine maintenance done, we may just need to put it in our calendar and sync to the car. The car drives itself to the service station, fills itself up with fuel (or gets a charge) and then returns quickly.
Modern automatic transmissions are pretty great. Cars equipped with dual-clutch or CVT automatics are generally faster and more fuel-efficient than their manual counterparts. The DCTs shift faster than a person can, and make cars easier to drive fast. Self-driving cars, due to their programming, will be able to provide better fuel economy than human drivers simply because they can make decisions based on far more information than we meatbags can.
Also, with safer roads come lower costs for insurance and road maintenance, and greater productivity means that our dollars can stretch further. People who would normally have been excluded from the workforce can go back to their jobs — as Inman states in his article, 45% of disabled people work. For people living with ailments that prevent driving, this could be a life-changing technology. Reducing the number of people collecting disability and getting them back to work can relieve some of the tax burden on all of us.
Now, I know your next question is,
What Does This Mean For Us?
The automobile revolutionized transportation. We went from dependency on railroads, cable cars, trolleys, and draft animals to a significantly more independent state. Our cars came to define generations.
I believe that the self-driving car will do for the normal car what the automobile (and all its working iterations) did for horses. Now, for the most part, horses are no longer working creatures but used for leisure. Most people who own horses do it for the love of owning a horse. Now, one may argue that the costs of keeping a horse put it out of the reach of most people, but an enthusiast can get into it relatively cheaply. Plus, when you're doing something you love, the cost is always justified.
I contend that if Mazda can turn a profit on a cheap sports car by selling it to a dedicated niche in the market, and if other car companies can follow the muscle car formula of installing big-car engines into cheap small cars, then there will always be a market for those of us who want a car we drive ourselves. What we have to do during the transition is acknowledge that we're different. We're special. We need to stop complaining about the march of progress, and accept that things change. And if we love something enough to spend money on it, the market will be there to give us what we want.
WhiteTrashSteve is a college dropout who, because of a bad decision, has the words "White Trash," tattooed on his beer gut. He lives with his redheaded wife and three dogs, is currently in school part time and is the office guy/ support staff/ general gopher for an automotive upholstery company. He and his wife were married by an Elvis, only three months after they met. They've been going strong for three and a half years.