I have no trouble imagining a driverless future for myself in the city of tomorrow. The interesting thing is that this isn’t just my vision; increasingly, it’s shared by automakers, who have to adjust to the rise of social networking and driving apathy, just as the technology for auto pilot is actually becoming possible.
Awakening after a night of revelry, I won’t even pause for a cup of coffee as I stab a button on my cellphone and summon my car. Emerging from the elevator, I’ll find my car at the curb, already warmed up against the winter chill. Hopping into the back seat, I’ll turn on the 19-inch 3-D monitor and catch up on the business news and email while the built-in beverage maker brews my java. In a corner of the screen, I can see that the car is plotting an alternative route because of congestion ahead. I’m glad avoiding congestion is the vehicle’s problem and not mine.
At 9 a.m., still in the car, I begin a tele-presence meeting with London, Bangkok and Brussels. The session is intense, and I’m glad for the car’s mobile office, which automatically transcribes the meeting, emails it to me, and stores a copy in the cloud. I’m so absorbed in my work that I don’t notice we’ve arrived at the office. I get out and walk into the lobby, as the car goes off to park itself. For the next eight hours it will sit folded up to a quarter of its size in an 18th floor storage room, and await my next call.
Congestion isn’t just frustrating: Americans lose a lot of productive time to it. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, being stuck in traffic cost Americans $115 billion in 2009, and that was up from $24 billion in 1982. We wasted almost 4 billion gallons of mostly imported oil idling in that traffic. Lost time cost commuters an average of $808 in 2009, and 34 hours of you-can-never-get-it-back work time (14 in 1982).
There has to be a better way, and maybe it’s autonomous driving. As the Detroit Free Press reports, “By 2030, city streets will teem with small, driverless cars whose wireless capabilities direct traffic flow smoothly, rendering traffic lights unnecessary, car designers and automotive visionaries say.” That's GM's rendition of how it might work at right.
The vision includes collapsing cars made of lightweight materials (remember the Jetsons’ car that folded into a briefcase?). We’re not there yet, but Nevada has now legalized self-driving, and a grand experiment is under way. Among the companies using Nevada’s roads for autonomous driving are Google, Mercedes-Benz and GM. Will it work? The Wall Street Journal's Joe White offers this perspective on video:
Google is talking to automakers to “see what their level of excitement is,” said Anthony Levandowski of Google. He told the Wall Street Journal that the company’s self-driving system should be ready “much sooner than the next decade. If not, shame on us as engineers.” He said that self-driving could be an after-market solution, or sold to automakers as an option on (probably) high-end cars at first.
GM says it will have its autonomous EN-V two-seater pod car (at left, and recently exhibited in China) on the road in 2020. I had a brief run in one, and it was great fun, even though the self-driving controls aren’t worked out yet. In surveys, drivers say they’d pay $3,000 to have their cars take over the wheel, but I suspect the amount will go higher for a very good reason — today’s teenagers.
Speaking as the father of a driving-indifferent 17-year-old, there’s clear evidence that Generation Y and the kids following after would rather play with social media than with a steering wheel. As Paul Davis writes in “The iPhone is the New Prius," young people see a better way. “For the price of a regular checkup and a couple months of insurance, you can get a smartphone, a transit card and a decent bike and ditch the headaches and the endless money drain that come with even a hybrid.” I kinda get that, even though I’m a car guy from way back.
Have we reached “peak car”? Maybe. In England, the percentage of 21- to 29-year-olds with licenses dropped from 75 to 66 percent from 1992 to 2007. Reports the New Statesman, “Young people aren't simply swapping cars for buses or bikes; they are choosing not to own and use other technology instead, such as smartphones and tablet computers.”
Cigarette companies are diversifying; maybe automakers will, too. For instance, Honda showed off its Uni-Cub this week. Shades of the Segway (many examples of which I saw working in Israel recently), the Uni-Cub is a personal gyroscopically balanced transportation device, a substitute for walking. You sit on this one, but it’s hands-free (the better to text and make calls). The user moves as on a Segway, controlling direction by leaning in the desired direction. Here's a look on video:
The Uni-Cub has one main wheel and second, tiny one that helps change directions. Swaying in one direction or another makes turns, or effects a 360-degree rotation.
With a lithium-ion battery, this electric device can reach four miles an hour, so you probably aren’t going to commute on it. There are no production plans, but Honda is testing the Uni-Cub at a Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Whether it’s built or not, the Cub is an indication that the transportation of tomorrow will be a departure from what we’re used to. GM’s EN-V pod is more like a futuristic rickshaw than any conventional car.
That car in your driveway? It’s headed for a museum. Cars as we know ‘em are probably doomed.