You want a self-driving car. Think about it.

Self-driving car from I, Robot

Self-driving car from I, Robot, courtesy 20th Century Fox

I know.  It almost sounds blasphemous.  Imagine, a car that drives itself, as do the cars in my novel Sarcology.  No input from a driver, other than telling the car your destination.  Then turning your back on the car until it tells you you’ve arrived.  It’s crazy.  No car could drive as well as you can.  No car could get you where you’re going faster or easier than you can.  And no robot could be a safer driver than you.

Yet, robotics technology is improving by leaps and bounds every day.  Google, using the latest in computers, GPS and sensory technology, has created a car that has run so safely over the past year (one accident, caused by the other car) that two states have decided to make self-driving cars legal on their streets.  Other states are already looking them over, as other car makers and experimenters are working on their own self-driving car technology.  And in every state, many drivers now gladly watch in hands-off mode as cars park themselves.  The writing is on the traffic sign.

And you still don’t want cars to drive you around?  Well, maybe you just haven’t thought it through.

First of all, today’s drivers are having enough trouble driving themselves… what with wanting to carry on conversations, talk on cellphones, eat snacks, put on makeup, check Facebook pages, text buddies, watch YouTube videos… and dodge all of the other drivers doing these things so much that they’re paying as little attention to the road as you.  Drivers have achieved sensory overload, to the extent that they are paying too little attention to the most statistically hazardous activity in their lives… driving.

And what about those of us who enjoy driving… exactly where can you do that?  Between traffic, speed limits, torn-up roads and obstacles, etc, there are precious few places where a driver can “open ‘er up” and really enjoy the driving experience.  Might as well let a robot do it, for all the fun it is in reality.

And as robotics tech improves, we are seeing self-drive cars are safer than human drivers, causing and getting caught in fewer accidents.  Robotic vehicles can check their surroundings against GPS data and their own internal maps, finding ways around traffic tie-ups, accidents and blocked routes more efficiently than human drivers.  They do the thinking, the car gets where it’s going.

And all you have to do is ride with it.

Imagine your own car being essentially like a cab that you own, equipped much like a tiny family room with all of your favorite stuff.  As the car does the hard and dangerous work of driving, you can sit back, play video games, browse the web, read, have a beer, take a nap, engage in a conversation, even make out.  Or you can carry on business, make conference calls, study the report you’re delivering, google your client info, have a cocktail, polish your presentation, or make out with your business partner.  (Wanna get busy?  Hope you have tinted windows.)  And you can do all of this, knowing that you are in safer hands than your own.  The car can even search and find the most convenient parking spot and do a better parking job than you can.  Heck, it could drop you off at the door, and then park itself and wait for you to summon it back… door-to-door service, at your command.

driverless taxiIn Sarcology, people are essentially chauffeured, either in their own self-driving cars, or in self-driving cabs, which are also ubiquitous in 2040s Atlanta.  Human-driven cars are not allowed anywhere near a city, because of the hazardous realities of human drivers, and about the only thing affected by this development is the inability to break traffic laws to get to your destination.  In exchange, passengers can rotate the seats to face each other or sit alongside, and engage in whatever activity they desire along the way, whether it’s talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, or even sex.  (Yes, it happens in the book.  Now stop asking!)

It’s not hard to imagine early adopters really going for this technology.  I’d bet some hot-shot entertainment stars and other frivolous big-spenders would be among the first to buy themselves self-driving cars, just for the pleasure of stepping out of a non-human-driven car and showing them off.

But soon, the practicality of the idea would show through: We’d see older people, whose age has made it unsafe for them to do the driving, buying these cars to get themselves around.  I could also see a few well-off parents buying a self-driving car for their children, giving the robot the job of getting them to and from school and after-school activities.  And once self-driving cars become that ubiquitous, it won’t be long before ordinary citizens start using them.

The cars would also be a boon to the physically handicapped, many of whom are incapable of driving themselves about.  Imagine a blind man getting to work in a self-driving car, or a paraplegic being driven directly to his therapist’s office.  Can’t deny the utility of that.

Eventually, the inherent safety of these vehicles will become a major issue, as people still die in traffic accidents more often than from any other cause in the United States.  It should only be a matter of time, therefore, before the government mandates their use in all congested areas… basically, on any major or heavily-traveled road.  When only self-driving cars can travel in the cities, and later, the suburbs, more people will be buying self-driving cars… or getting as close to the city as they can, and transferring to self-driving cabs—which they will probably like a lot more than today’s cabs, driven by strangers, often with minimal command of the language and doubtful traffic knowledge and driving skills.

Yes, if you stop and think about it, it’s hard not to imagine a day when we will gladly give up the distracting, dangerous task of driving to robots, whether the government makes us do it or not.  In fact, it’s hard not to look forward to it.  The more I wrote about self-driving cars in Sarcology, the more I found myself aching to have one.  And I honestly believe that, if you really thought about it… you’d ache for them too.

Additional: Futurist Thomas Frey’s take on the subject is here.

9 thoughts on “You want a self-driving car. Think about it.

  1. I think it needs to go even further, i.e. the robot cab idea. Why buy a robot car when they can be on call all the time. You normally only need a car to get from one place to another (although sometimes it is used for storage of items). What if everyone joined the robot car club and paid a certain monthly fee to have on call access. You can specify if you need the vehicle constantly for a period of N hours or only to get from point A to point B. This would greatly reduce the number of vehicles (bad for the car companies but good for parking spaces) since not everyone needs a vehicle at the same time.


  2. I see no reason not to do that, and I’m sure that will be fine for many people. I’ll just point out that so many people feel the need to A) not be kept waiting, B) personalize things and C) bring all their stuff with them (as you mentioned). Not to mention some people’s resistance to using any sort of public transportation, including cabs (“Hey… who was in here last? It stinks!”). So I’m sure there would be a market for privately-owned self-drive vehicles that people could outfit as they see fit, from living room to lovenest, on the inside.


  3. I have to admit that I’m quite impressed by your posts here, in particular this one and the latest post about robots. You’ve got me very eager to read the upcoming novel.

    I do admit that I would have concerns related to personal freedom about a system where cars are *entirely* guided by computer and one has no option to switch to manual driving (I shudder to think of the ways in which a corrupt government or simply a group of hackers could abuse this system), and I do feel that an entirely ‘free’ /communal system wouldn’t work out because free communal property tends to get trashed (having people pay a monthly fee is a great idea because then they have a reason to care if the car gets torn up), but I love the idea in a more general sense and think you have outlined several good and reasonable ideas here and managed to avoid the more extreme ones.

    I currently find myself in a situation where the nearest city that allows me access to medical specialists is an hour and a half drive either way (80 miles away), plus the time spent driving around in the city. The end result is a long, monotonous drive through scenery I largely have no interest in that leaves me exhausted and also frustrated that I could have spent that time doing something more productive. I would love to be able to put the car on auto pilot and read during those four hours instead of having to spend that time driving. For that matter, if this was an option I would probably use less fuel due to being less inclined toward high speed since I could use the added drive time in a productive fashion. (Hmm….that could be turned into an interesting slogan in favor of self-driving cars. ‘Reduce boredom, reduce global warming!’ :D)

    I’d also like to note that I think you’ve raised an excellent point when it comes to the pleasure of driving. The pleasure that most people take from driving is the ‘open road’, beautiful scenery, music playing in your car (as opposed to rap blasting into your car from the person next to you at the stop light)–essentially, pleasure that is taken in long trips between cities, not the day-to-day driving in town that takes up most of the average individual’s driving time.

    Thank you for the excellent post.


  4. The most popular (or infamous) complaint about any kind of automation is that it will run amok; I’d feel I’d done something wrong if it hadn’t been mentioned!

    And I’d never say it’s not a concern, because I’ve seen myself the state of car automation that needs to be addressed before we’re ready to take the full automation step. Last year, I took a trip to New York state to visit cousins, and when I reached a point where I was directed by traffic markers to drive on the opposite side of the road to pass through a construction zone, my car’s GPS went nuts, and tried to tell me I was driving in reverse on the wrong side of the road! Considering I was on a bridge over a sizable rocky drop, I shudder to think where I’d have ended up if the car were running things.

    However, in this case I think any concern for personal safety would be almost completely unwarranted in our future’s fully automated cars, and here’s why:

    If you’re going to automate a car, you must assume that, wherever the car gets its flow of traffic information from, there’s always the possibility that something will happen before the relevant data services can find out and report it to the car; therefore, the car must have its own sensory system evaluating the situation in realtime, and this must logically be hardwired to always take precedence over any data sent from an outside source.

    And right now, we have sensory equipment in existing high-end cars that can track the motions of other cars around them and slow and even steer the car away from danger. And, of course, base-model cars that can self-park and halt before backing into an obstacle, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of its immediate surroundings. We’re already a major part of the way there. An automated car should be clever enough to recognize icy roads and slow down or stop; to see cars stopped in heavy fog and avoid a pileup; and even see past a Wile E. Coyote-style road painted on a rock and drive around it.

    So, it might be possible for an outside source to send the car inaccurate information about traffic conditions, or try to convince the car that there are roads that do not exist. But the worst that will happen is that the car will come to a stop in a nasty traffic jam, or pull over when the road it expected does not, in fact, exist when the car gets there. No car that could drive blithely off a cliff because of some data sent by a terrorist would be allowed on the road… it would never be authorized to carry passengers or freight by our transportation administration… nor would the public be convinced to buy any car that wasn’t certified safe by consumer services, major media, 60 Minutes, Ralph Nader, etc, etc.

    We do have a long way to go before we’re ready, but most of the tech we need to do it exists today; it’s just a matter of applying it to our roads, our traffic monitors, our communications systems, our cars. And I firmly believe that it would result in far fewer accidents and casualties on our roads, making its value and safety (compared to the present human-piloted system) clear. I would be more than willing to ride in such a system, and would feel (and be) so much safer than I feel around today’s distracted, tunnel-visioned drivers.


  5. I assure you, I’m not worried about the technology itself going awry, I’m quite sure that it would not be released into the public until fine-tuned enough to make it work well. Any company or government trying to introduce that technology would realize that–forgive the crude phrase–their ass is on the line if things go wrong given the amount of public resistance to this kind of idea. Allowing them to be built and released in any quantity approaching mass production before they had worked out all the bugs would be suicide for the administration or company.

    On the other hand if there was an overlying system guiding the cars that a corrupt government or group of hackers could get access to, some ugly things could result. That’s why I classified my concern in regards to people being able to over-ride the car if necessary as largely being a personal freedom issue. I’m sorry my intent wasn’t clear and caused you a lot of unnecessary writing. As it stands, I eagerly wait for the day when we can have automated cars.

    That said, I thank you for writing up a long response to me which could be its own adjoining post. I don’t agree with everything you say when you blog* (though you say a *lot* of intelligent, well reasoned things) but I must commend you on being willing to take care of your commenters, so to speak, by making an attempt to give a thorough response to each comment. That’s a rare quality in a blogger and one that I appreciate greatly.

    *I’m not referring to this post in particular when I say that I disagree with you on some matters, just for the record.


  6. Addendum to my post, having re-read yours: I think the idea of sensors within the car to keep track of safety is a great idea and, should, of course be implemented as a fail-safe *without* an ability to over-ride it from afar built in.

    Again, thank you for your post and sorry for my carelessness in my response.


  7. The article cited—primarily about various opinions about “Intelligent Transport Systems” (ITS) technology—does suggest that self-driving cars will likely impact jobs, especially of drivers; on the other hand, it does not cite the jobs that will be created in maintaining the automated and sensory systems in cars AND on the roads. (And considering the seriousness of those jobs, we’ll need a sizable and dedicated work force handling that.)

    It also doesn’t address the possibility that all those drivers could be re-employed in the transit and chauffering industries, as mobile concierges, guides, assistants, etc. Former drivers could become local emissaries, suggesting best spots to dine or be entertained (as they do now, only without the pesky driving duties to distract them).

    And presumably, if automated driving makes cars safer, allowing former drivers and passengers to find other distractions during the trip, we may see a larger market in automobile customization, adding car features that we can scarcely imagine today, as well as a revisiting of “drive-in” services redesigned to accommodate the hands-free driver.

    Essentially, I wouldn’t assume a net loss of jobs will necessarily follow automation… and we could as easily see a significant net gain.


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