by Jacques Gordon
To great media fanfare, Google has just unveiled the Verge, a self-driving car that the company says “isn’t a car, it’s the future.” Although that future is still a few (very few) years away, the Verge is intended to show us what it could look like. In Google founder Sergey Brin’s vision of the automotive future, people don’t drive cars, they simply get in and proceed to their destination, just like riding in a taxi cab. While the technology that makes it work isn’t exactly easy, it’s here now. All that’s needed is a little more development and society’s decision to deploy.
All of the world’s major automakers are developing their own vision of the self-driving car now, anticipating market release in about six years. The difference between their cars and Google’s version is exactly what Google said; the Verge isn’t a car, it’s an automated low-speed local run-about, an electric cart capable of transporting two people to a pre-programmed destination within its modest speed and range limits. There are no manual controls of any kind, just a screen on the dashboard.
Assuming there’s a market for this kind of machine (many deep-thinkers think there is), the Verge will have to share the road with real cars with human drivers. Actually it might be more accurate to say it the other way around: humans will have to share the road with the Verge, and that’s a scary thought: how many times have you sat in front of a computer and asked yourself “What’s it doing now?” When the blue screen of death descends upon a real car with automatic driving capabilities, a human driver can intervene and at least get the damn thing out of the way. Without a steering wheel or even a brake pedal, a disabled Verge will become a very dangerous obstacle.
Much has been written about the advantages of automated cars; they will reduce traffic congestion and energy consumption, save time, save lives and billions of dollars by preventing traffic accidents, bring mobility to people who can’t drive…but it’s not going to work if humans and machines must share the road. Even if driverless cars never-ever-ever break down or make a mistake, that would only accentuate the difference between automated vehicles and human drivers. It wouldn’t take more than a generation for auto insurance to become prohibitively expensive for manual driving, and people who actually want to drive will be relegated to the race track. How would the SEMA-market companies sell cold air intakes, high-performance brake pads, super sticky tires and all the other billions of dollars worth of aftermarket products? It might be easier to take away Ted Nugent’s guns.
It will take many deep-thinking car people many man-hours (or just a few at the bar) to imagine even half the changes we’ll face when fully-automated and driverless cars become a reality. In the entire history of the automobile, the Verge might just be a glimpse at one of the most interesting rides ever.
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