Yes: Autonomous vehicles will improve safety, lower costs for drivers
Visitors to the General Motors Futurama pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 saw something quite amazing: an automated highway system. It was a dazzling display of thousands of cars and trucks operating without driver assistance, allowing for maximum traffic flow and efficiency.
The GM Futurama program was the work of famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, who many credit with conceiving what became the first modern interstate highway system.
Today, Bel Geddes, who died in 1958, is being given even more credit — for inspiring a whole new world of automated transportation.
While Bel Geddes didn't have the technological solutions back in 1939 to make his system work, he did have a keen vision for the future. Like most visionaries, he left the technology pieces to future generations. And today, his vision is right around the corner.
Today’s motor vehicles are becoming increasingly able to monitor their surroundings and respond as needed thanks to automated systems that can interpret data from sensors, cameras and radar-based technologies. These technologies are coming to the marketplace swiftly and will lead to vehicles with ever higher levels of automation. Eventually, we’ll have fully autonomous vehicles.
Yes, this is going to be a real challenge for much of the driving public, particularly those with a fondness for controlling the speed and steering of their vehicle. But, as younger generations like to remind their elders: You’ll just have to deal with it.
Ultimately, automated driving systems could usher in a host of benefits, from improved highway safety to reduced emissions and congestion. They might also save money, increase productivity and give more people access to mobility.
Government data shows that driver error is a factor in 94 percent of crashes. For example, fatigued drivers are twice as likely to make mistakes behind the wheel. Driver assists like alarms for a drowsy driver, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warnings can help reduce crashes. And most experts believe the most common crash — rear-end collisions — will decline dramatically due to automatic emergency braking.
When vehicles achieve full automation, the impacts of risky and dangerous behaviors could be cut dramatically. The greatest promise may be reducing the devastation of impaired driving, which causes a third of road fatalities today. In addition, a fully automated vehicle will not exceed the speed limit, thus reducing speed-related crashes.
From an environmental standpoint, automated driving systems are projected to reduce fuel use and, in turn, carbon emissions. Fewer traffic jams will result in lessened fuel use and reduced greenhouse gases from needless idling. Also, fewer crashes translates to fewer roadway backups. Available technology like adaptive cruise control keeps a prescribed distance between vehicles, eliminating stop-and-go waves that produce road congestion for no apparent reason.
Of all the benefits of automated vehicles, none will be more welcomed by consumers than those that impact the pocketbook. With this technology, the costs of medical bills, lost work time and vehicle repair will diminish. Insurance costs should also drop. Smoother flowing traffic will reduce fuel costs, and car sharing — which reduces overall vehicle costs — is expected to become more commonplace.
For the millions of American commuters, less congestion will mean less commuting time and more productivity.
Importantly, fully automated driving systems will provide Americans with more personal freedom. They will allow people with disabilities to travel more easily and independently. They will increase the mobility of the elderly who can no longer drive. And, by reducing the many costs cited above, they will provide more affordable mobility to people at every income level.
While it is still many years away, the automated highway system has the potential of advancing broad shifts in American life. Just as the drive-in restaurant and theater changed lifestyles in the 20th century, automated driving will make even greater changes in the years ahead.
In a nutshell, people will be sitting in their cars, reading, working, talking on the phone or just watching the scenery go by. Those with a yen for performance driving will have to find a track.
As expected, the specter of automated highways has garnered the attention of governments at every level. Federal, state and even local governments are considering the changes coming and how to best regulate them.
Overall, I believe the automated driving system will be a good thing when fully developed — good for safety, the environment and our pocketbooks. The change will be enormous, something on the order of when Henry Ford decided a small internal combustion engine would be better than a horse.
Whatever the future holds, it's coming. Buckle your seat belts.
William H. Noack is a strategic consultant who has advised some the nation's top companies and nonprofit organizations. Readers may write him at Noack & Associates, LLC, 3168 Braverton St., fourth floor, Edgewater, MD, 21037.
No: Americans will always seek the thrill of the open road
Self-driving cars will kill the precious thrill of the open road while hurting large segments of our economy.
When killjoys and bureaucrats get their way, we give up the things that make our lives rich and fun. We're approaching that now with these pod-like vehicles.
Private companies and federal agencies are working to put millions of driverless cars on America's roads, and there's a good chance those vehicles will eventually comprise the majority of personal vehicles on our roads: Some are predicting fully automated cars will account for 10 percent of annual global vehicle sales by 2035, with that percentage expected to grow from there.
Google plans to put its autonomous driving technology into minivans, Tesla plans to have a fully driverless car ready by 2018 and many other companies plan to roll out self-driving cars by 2020.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has kicked off the regulatory process that will be necessary for the technology to further grow.
There's no doubt that federal bureaucrats want to discourage individual driving and, as usual with government meddling, they'll tell us it's for our own good.
So, let's examine what our society might look like if driverless cars become the dominant means of private transportation.
First, we'd be deprived of the precious freedom of mobility and the magnificent joy of driving on the open road that have made America the most mobile — and most fun — car country on Earth.
H.L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” Driverless cars are a 21st century illustration of that adage.
No one with an ounce of adventure coursing through their veins wants to travel in a drab little pod — probably with federal hackers recording your every move and quite possibly your every conversation.
Forget that wonderful little ditty about “the free, fresh wind in your hair ... life without care.”
When you look out the pod’s window, all you will see is other pods — no more awesome Ferraris, Mustangs, Corvettes or Porsches.
And there would be no more thrilling, iconic car movies like Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt,” Paul Newman’s “Winning,” James Garner’s “Grand Prix,” and “Thunder Road,” the perfect 1950s drive-in movie with bootlegger Robert Mitchum outrunning dull revenue cop Gene Barry.
Chase scenes would have to be done with bicycles — that is, with drivers wearing government-approved helmets.
Some 65 years ago, “Route 66” captured the imagination of the baby boom generation with two young guys having great adventures while speeding across America’s open roads in a Corvette convertible. We would never have fallen in love with the show if the guys had stayed home in, say, Dubuque.
Of course, massive change — especially when heavily guided by big government — always means huge economic disruptions.
For example, hotels would lose out as people sleep in their cars during overnight trips. Using a car as a moving motel is much more cost-efficient and convenient than booking a hotel room.
On the other hand, the drab reality would also make people for more nostalgic for the golden age of automobile, boosting attendance to such famous car museums as the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., and the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa.
As Americans view these glittering works of automotive art, they’ll begin to fully realize just how much the country has the lost in switching to the dullness of automated pod cars.
Whitt Flora, an independent journalist, covered the White House for The Columbus Dispatch and was chief congressional correspondent for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. Readers may write him at 319 Shagbark Road, Middle River, MD, 21220.