‘Our eventual goal is to not need the driver at all’

I like to drive. Give me some decent music, I can happily drive for a long stretch. Out here in Wyoming, it’s easy to disengage your brain from everything else and focus on nothing but the road. Why?

There’s very little in the way of traffic.

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I-25 in northeastern Wyoming. There’s a whole lot of nothing on the road. 

There’s a downside to the lovely scenery and the lack of traffic: boredom. When you drive the 300 miles from Buffalo to Cheyenne, with only a handful of towns and one city in between, there’s precious little to occupy your attention. Great for a writer’s daydreams. Bad for driver attention spans.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the rapidly expanding field of self-driving cars. The advances made in the past few years are astonishing. Then there’s an article in USA Today this morning, linked from a writer at the Arizona Republic, talking about how test drivers of the self-driving cars operated by Waymo “only have to take control about once every 5,000 miles” — a quarter as often as they did a year ago.

If that rate of technological improvement holds steady, in a decade, we could see cars without any driver intervention become commonplace. What does that bode for travel 20, 30, 40 years … down the road?

Waymo is the name for Google’s self-driving project, in case you’re wondering, and while I  think it sounds goofy, you can’t knock their progress. The cars have gotten so good at avoiding obstacles that drivers complain about them being too cautious. Really? If the cars are overly worried about hitting pedestrians and other vehicles now, when the kinks are streamlined and they can do so without “brief hesitation,” what does this bode for human drivers?

Easy enough to imagine a future in which we unreliable humans are forbidden from taking control of an automated car.

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According to Autoblog last year, two US Senators prodded the NHSTA to push for better autonomous driving regulation so the technology could become mainstream faster. Not just an urban concern – the senators were from New Jersey and Nebraska, two states that have as much in common as our primary candidates for the presidency.

Imagine the initial outcry – from people like me included. How long before we see political debates in which driving is debated as a Constitutional right? (I know driving isn’t specifically in there but trust me, somebody somewhere is bound to bring it up.) At what point does increased safety infringe on personal freedoms? All things 9/11 forced us to examine, only now they’d be considered from a new standpoint.

I suspect, however, that the bulk of drivers – especially in urban areas – would gladly turn over the keys to a robot if accidents declined to the point fatalities were unheard of.

Then of course, there’s the outcry that would occur if and when truck drivers are replaced. This fall Uber delivered 50,000 cans of beer with its self-driving unit, Otto.

You know how many commercial truck drivers there are in the US? 3.5 million. On the one hand, Uber claims the current navigation system only works on highways, which are less complex to drive than side roads. They also want to help cover a shortage in available drivers.

On the other hand, what happens if the navigation systems progress to the point they can easily drive those aforementioned side roads?

And how do you combat the almost-guaranteed hacking or disrupting of car navigational systems?

It’s an incredible technology that, like all others, raises a host of questions that can’t be answered all at once.

For me, I’ll continue to enjoy the freedom of driving — and sometimes rue the tedium it entails. It’s a funny combination of feelings associated with the piece of equipment that has most changed our society in the past century.

How it changes in the next 50 years will stun us all.

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