Despite the astonishing advances in technology over the last 50 years, we don’t often combine these advancements into a singularly-focused, major project – something big. The last one was the Apollo missions to the moon, where we used technology from many sciences such as physics, engineering, materials science and energy, to send a person to the moon and return them safely to earth. This was, and remains, a remarkable achievement of humanity. It was also the genesis of many of the cooler gadgets we use today.
I’d like to propose the next mission-to-the-moon-sized goal – The Smart Car Project. I am certainly not the first person to talk about this concept, which includes automated driving, smart highways, and the like. Google has even proven basic feasibility of the concept by having a driverless car roam the streets of California for a few years already. Despite the progress being made by Google and others, I don’t hear any of our leaders seriously discussing a major transportation project like this. Perhaps our politicians don’t care to plan a decade-long project because they may not be around to take credit for it, or maybe it’s because we have too many other things on our plate: war, terrorism, the economy, health care, gun control… and I am not suggesting a smart car project take priority over immediate needs, but more as a long-term item that could go on “in the background” – a program that would likely help us on several fronts. Let me highlight some areas where The Smart Car Project could be a real benefit to humanity:
This is the obvious one, and the one with the greatest benefit. A 2005 estimate places the number of deaths from road accidents at over 43,000 per year, with 2.7 million injuries per year.1 Computer controlled driving could virtually eliminate these needless deaths and injuries. Critics would argue that an automated car would have problems initially, resulting in fatalities as well. This is no doubt true. The difference is, if accidents did occur, the systems could be shut down until proper time is given to investigate and fix the bugs. There is no question the number of fatalities would be greatly reduced. Also, I am not suggesting that driver-less vehicles are forced on people, at least not initially. The decision would rest with the occupant.
Once cars are under computer control, a central system would select routes to control traffic and minimize congestion. Actually, more likely there would be a system for each municipality to control traffic locally, with facility for communicating with each other to manage connecting routes.
Fuel Economy vs. “Get Me There Now!”
Not only will central systems control the direction of travel, they will control the speed as well. I envision different speed settings from “Fuel Saving Mode” to “Quick, My Wife Is Having A Baby!” velocity. Once all the human drivers are off the road, and there are only automated vehicles, we might be able to travel faster, and more safely, since computers can perform distance and obstacle-avoidance computations faster than humans can. Plus, they will have access to the database of the location of the other cars on the road.
Pick-up / Drop-off Service
Imagine you need to go to the airport to catch a flight. You program the airport as your destination and once you arrive at the airport, you tell your car to “go home.” Since it is a driver-less car, not only does it not need a driver, it doesn’t need a passenger either. You’ve already programmed your return flight information into your car. The car, having wireless capability, checks the status of your flight, and calculates when it has to leave your house to arrive at the airport when you do, and you’ve saved both the hassle and the cost of parking as a result!
Productivity During Travel
You could surf the internet, read the news (on your tablet of course), enjoy a beverage and a donut, get some work done or talk on the phone while you’re driving to and from work. I know, I know…you say, “But I do all that now.” Yes, but you can do all that without being a jerk and a menace to society.
In an attempt to be even-handed about this, there are some dystopian views of my utopian travel scenario. Two of them are:
So Long Taxi Drivers
While The Smart Car Project should have no effect on taxi companies, it would surely have an effect on taxi drivers. No more driving through mid-town Manhattan at 60 MPH in the back seat of a death cab. Wait a minute, did I list this under pros or cons?!?
If eliminating road deaths is the obvious positive, the Big Brother concern is the obvious negative. All this centralized control of cars must make conspiracy theorists quiver. They could choose to think of this as a trade-off, however. Right now there is a great deal of debate going on with red light cameras. Apart from travel implications, folks don’t like the cameras on the street. They feel as though the government is monitoring their activities. With smart cars there would be no need for red light cameras. Come to think of it…since Teledyne DALSA is in the camera business, maybe this isn’t such a good idea for us. What if the smart folks in charge of The Smart Car Project decide to use a technology other than vision to guide the cars??
Let’s just forget the whole thing. Enjoy your drive.