By now, we've all seen pictures of self-driving cars, like Google's fleet of Priuses with freaky rigs on their roofs, or completely driverless cars, like Google's latest cute little guy, which doesn't even have traditional controls for humans to use. Think about this: We may someday have to explain to our grandkids what a steering wheel was. Probably at the same time we're explaining to them why we clung to our old gasoline burning engines for so long — and that's the reason these poor kids have never been outside the dome we all live under.
But enough doom and gloom! Now is the time to get in on the ground floor of self-driving cars with a wish list of things we'd like to see engineers and designers include in these cars before they're fully formed.
"The Jetsons'" robot Rosie had a personality. The smartphone in the movie "Her" had enough personality that a man fell in love. And for a more direct precedent, the cars in Isaac Asimov's short story "Sally" from 1953 had personalities in their positronic brains. (Pay no attention to the violent retribution streak those cars had.) If we're going to hand the electronic reins over, we humans tend to feel better if the car is at least a little human-like itself. According to a recent study, giving the car a name, a gender and a voice increases our ability to trust a self-driving vehicle to do the right thing [source: Adam, Heafner and Epley].
That self-driving car parked in your garage is a sophisticated computer on wheels. It's probably got better WiFi than your house. It knows when you are sleeping, it knows when you're awake. It knows when you are bad or good, so beware the NSA. If you pay your bills while the car drives you to work, hackers could pick your account numbers out of the air. Or you could find yourself in the middle of a plot worthy of a Matt Damon action movie, with your car's computer under the control of the Russian mob while on its way to pick up drugs you've never heard of down by the docks at one in the morning. Some are hoping that the potential to monitor an individual's movement in the real world — not just online — will drag our privacy protections into the modern era. Some others are like, "Sure, I'll help you out, Mr. Nigerian prince." Let's hope that first group takes the lead on this one.
There are very few people who love driving in snow and slush, and those who do are mostly Norwegian rally car drivers. Most of us dread it — the fender benders, the ditches, the whiteouts. It would be great if an autonomous car could just do that already, but it can't. Not yet, anyway. The current crop of self-driving cars rely on cameras and sensors to see the world around it, which includes lane dividers and the white line marking the edge of the road. When snow and slush cover those up, autonomous cars wander around in the street like drunken robots.
New technology costs big bucks. We know that. And yet the price tag for the rooftop rig that Google is using to test its self-driving cars costs something like $75,000 — in addition to the price of the car it sits on top of. That's a lot of money for a lot of ugly. Of course, there are only a few of these camera- and sensor-laden rigs in the entire world, and they're still in the beta stage and will be for quite some time (like everything that Google releases, am I right?). On-board driving assist technologies, like smart cruise control and 360-degree cameras, are becoming more widely available and cheaper, so these will likely lead the way toward driverless cars in the near future.
Most self-driving cars being tested still require a human in the driver's seat to help with the tricky bits, like snow or confusing highway interchanges. But Google's got another cute little guy that's completely driverless — no steering wheel or pedals at all. If this becomes a viable form of transportation, then the shape and purpose of cars can be entirely reimagined. Beyond the convenient, like a flat floor that commuters can use for catching an extra 45-minute nap on the way to work, there's the perfectly practical, like an automatic ramp and slots that fit a wheelchair without hassle or expensive retrofitting.
Another emerging technology, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or V2V as the kids call it, is going to make this whole driverless thing possible. Cars will be able to sense each other and make little conversations: "Hey, blue sedan over there." "Oh, hey, little red EV." "I'm just going to mosey through this intersection now, seeing as how I have the green light and all." "Totes cool, EV. My sensors tell me I've got a red light anyway." Cars will talk to each other, to buses, to emergency vehicles and even to infrastructure like smart traffic lights. They'll be chatty as that guy in the break room everyone tries to avoid, but hopefully more useful.
While self-driving cars are new, self-parking cars are not. Putting that relatively old capability on a wish list would be silly. But what about a self-driving car that could tool around the mall parking lot looking for a space for itself? Engineers in South Korea have figured out a way to bring data from sensors, cameras and that old-school movement-meter, the odometer, together to help a self-driving car become a self-parking car. The car looks for the painted lines that mean "parking space," then it determines if there's an obstacle in that space — like, say, another car. When it finds a parking space with nothing in it, it tells the driver, who can choose to take the spot or look for a better one. Of course, the car has to be able to see the spot, so night parking is still up to the humans.
Many of the self-driving cars that are closest to being ready for prime time do a pretty good job of getting themselves around, but they occasionally need some help from a driver. That means you still have to pay attention to what's going on around you and be ready to steer the car or hit the brakes. Truly autonomous cars are on the way, though, if Google is to be believed. And, as we've already mentioned, they've got a cute little car that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals. It's in charge all the time, which frees us to nap, eat breakfast, watch "Cars" and get in heated arguments in the comments sections of our favorite websites. Google says this adorable doodad of a car will be ready in 2017. Get ready to text and not drive, America!
As long as we're ridding ourselves of the inconvenience of driving the car, let's rid ourselves of stops at the gas station, too. There are robotic gas pumps in the works, but let's take an even more ginormous step forward and just go all-electric with these things. Think of it: If designers can do anything once the steering wheel and pedals are gone, what could they do without the need for air intake, exhaust pipes, or mufflers? Cars could take on any shape and configuration under the sun — oh hey! Let's make them solar-powered electric self-driving cars! It's a wish list, right? Get on it, engineers. Actually, Nissan has mentioned making a self-driving version of its Leaf electric car, so it's not such a pipe dream after all.
There's an old joke that says racing began as soon as the second car was built. It seems that the dream of a flying car hatched about five minutes after that, but we have yet to deliver. It's like that one thing that every kid puts on her Christmas list every year but never gets: a horse, a house in Disneyland, a visit from Dumbledore promising that she's a wizard and this isn't her real family. So please, Santa Claus, if we can have self-driving cars, can they have an option to fly? We'll be super good this year. We promise.
General Motors has developed a self-driving car called the Cruise AV that has no steering wheel or pedals. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Features We Want to See in Self-Driving Cars
It's funny — when you ask most people what features a self-driving car should have, they look at you blankly. A car that can drive itself is already a mind-blower; what else could you possibly want? I'd prod them with a few seeds of ideas, and tell them to really let their imaginations go wild, and they would say in all seriousness, "I have no idea." I'll admit it was even a little challenging to me. But once you delve into the possibilities and projects that engineers are already working on, you realize there's a whole new world of automotive tech coming in the next decade, whether consumers are ready for it or not. A sensor, a new airbag, and a 3-mile per gallon (1.3-kilometer per liter) increase in gas mileage aren't going to cut it anymore. The future of cars has the potential to be pretty freaking awesome.
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