Steering wheel-less bot car

johnnycabGeez, everyone is gushing about self driving cars.  There even is a four point scale (PDF) to rate self driving car features now.

  1. Automatic braking, skid control
  2. Adaptive cruise control, automatic lane changing
  3. Driver is only active for when driving conditions deteriorate, passive otherwise
  4. Driver is passive under all driving conditions, steering wheel optional

thNews about this is all over the place.  Ford is praising Tesla’s innovation, something unheard of from the legacy auto industry, and suggesting car pods without steering wheels may be appearing on roads soon.  Social ride sharing company’s like Uber are poaching robotists from major Universities.  Auto parking Volvo’s are careening into pedestrians, while Virginia is opening several freeways to self driving cars.

Okay, let’s say Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Google, Tesla, Ford, or some other new start-up launches a robot car transportation service tomorrow.  Let’s assume except for minor fender benders, they have a 100% safety track record.  Would you be okay being in a robot car on a road that also had manual drivers as well, or would you feel more comfortable if you traveled only on roads that were in exclusive robot driving mode?  What concerns would you have about getting into a driver-less Level 4+ robot car?

Heart: The self-driving car industry certainly seems determined to accelerate innovation in this space, but when it comes to safety and comfort behind the wheel, I’m hearing the honk of too many driverless horns – and too little unproven technology – to hop on an embryonic four-point bandwagon just yet.

The one part of the conversation I’m not hearing anything about, however, is how robot cars will change the culture of driving, and what we the drivers will miss out on, once we leave the wheel and join the main cabin.

For instance, many people enjoy driving and find it an effective way to deal with travel sickness.  Others use it as a way to focus on the road ahead and tune out their passengers.  More than once, I’ve used it as an excuse to leave early—bad traffic, feeling a bit tired, weather looking a bit iffy—and remove myself or members of my entourage from a rapidly deteriorating social situation.  

I also enjoy driving, and the feeling it gives me that at least there’s one thing in my life that I can control.  Even though I know statistically it’s one of the least safe modes of transport, and I regularly pass accidents and witness reckless maneuvers.  

But as a parent, one of the most important benefits of offering behind-the-wheel transportation for my kids was the ability to eavesdrop on conversations while seemingly shrouded in a cloak of invisibility.  Driving my teenagers and their friends to and from school, soccer games, playdates and mall trips gave me the opportunity to gain valuable insight into their world.  

I overheard the excitement from when they’d illicitly watched their first PG13 movie (at age 11), and at whose house.  I learned which one of them was bombing math and needed extra tuition.  I discovered which of their friends was beginning to experiment with alcohol.  And the more I silently drove and listened, the more I learned.  

So while I can definitely see the safety advantages and possible comfort gains of self-driving cars, for me, the experience of driving is both a skill and a reward that I cherish.

Cog: I see, transporting children is sort of special case.  So would you be okay relegating transport of your kids to a robot car after a certain age?  Maybe some sort of ‘in transit’ mobile app is needed to track your loved ones when you no longer drive them, maybe with video chat feature while they are being transported.  I must say there are unique conversations that occur when my son is in the back seat that would be different if I wasn’t driving.  Another approach is ‘driver’ remains in the front ‘command’ seat, kids still in back, robot drives.  Yes the kids will know you are not actively driving, but expect they gossip no less.

What I envision, is you could still have all those social cues to excuse yourself for transport reasons, the robot car isn’t immune to traffic or weather – indeed it potentially makes travel safer as it won’t be speeding, tail gating, or weaving obsessively trough traffic.  Excusing yourself to go to the bathroom is a time honored get away phrase, no vehicle required.

As I drove recently for Lyft and experienced first hand how it worked, I got the feeling that the fare passenger was like a puppeteer, essentially controlling my car, and that I was just the meat handling the steering wheel, brakes, signaling, and micro navigation.  It did provide some amazing conversation with very diverse people occasionally, but I wonder if a driverless car would somehow be even more compelling for an emerging ride sharing economy.  The bloody commute across Bay Area freeways during rush hour in a ride share or robot car seems to me somehow equivalent.  For most travelers, efficient vehicle management is becoming a priority, and whether it’s with a rented human driver or using servos, sensors, and a routing algorithm seems a diminishing distinction.

Yours truly, H&C

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