Autonomous

By Jake Gavin

Well, I got a late start, I admit. But if driving my own car was still an option, I could make up the time. But no more. And what kind of excuse can I offer for being late? It was my car’s fault? Strictly speaking, that’s exactly right. But that explanation would fall on deaf ears, and all I would get would be a puzzled look. Nowadays everyone has Orwellian’d themselves into non-think. We’ve become mental zombies, under the spell of the promises of technology, and my boss is no exception.

The cost of living being as it is, I had no choice but to use a company car, and no choice of the car, either. Society has gone nuts, the company has gone bright green, and I’m stuck with a who-knows-where-it’s-made commuter car with a mind of its own. Boy, what I wouldn’t give for an old Chevy.

So what’s the problem, you ask? So your car takes its time. Just get up earlier. Have you gone soft? You’ve missed the entire point. Driving used to be an art form, now it’s a spectator sport. It’s like being chauffeured by your grandmother. But not my grandmother. In fact, the other day I gave her a ride to her doctor. On the way she asked, “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

Take this trip, for instance. I started out driving myself from home. Then the car decided that it could do a better job driving and just took over. I can’t turn it off! I’m in a 45 MPH zone, and by George, that’s all we’re doing, if that. The only cars on the road going the speed limit are maddening contrivances like the lame one I’m sitting in. And, oh, here we go again. The thing keeps a textbook-safe distance between you and the guy in front, so other drivers are constantly cutting in. That makes my car back off even further. If there is a pedestrian anywhere close or a guy in a bike lane, the thing will slow down to a crawl, block traffic behind, and give far more room than it needs to. It’s crazy!

Expensive autonomous cars must have different control algorithms because they seem more aggressive, but still no match for regular old dumb cars where the driver is still the driver.

I suppose if every car on the road was autonomous they would communicate with each other and act as one system, like the Borg. “Prepare to be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” Either that or the whole system would gridlock. But as it is only a small percentage of cars on the road are autonomous, so they’re easy pickings for drivers of regular old dumb cars.

Anyway, this is what I told my old friend Jacob, president of Advanced Automated Vehicle Control Systems. I was there gathering information for an article that I was writing for Automotive Technologies for their blog and newsletter.

We had been discussing the company’s latest endeavor—a racing series for driverless cars that showcases and promotes autonomous control technologies. Basically they are full-size, completely autonomous electric RC cars. I don’t see the point, but the series is a hit and is raking in millions.

After listening to my tirade, he asked, “Do you have time for a ride in a test vehicle?”

I would be heading home for the weekend after the meeting, so I told him I have all kinds of time.

We left his office and took the elevator down to the basement garage, which was adjacent to one of their R&D areas.

He pointed to a sporty looking silver hatchback that was plugged into a charger. It looked pretty ordinary, except for a couple of teardrop-shaped bulges on the roof. The car was fully charged, so Jacob unplugged it. Then he opened the driver’s door and started to get in, but stopped, and tossed me the key fob.

“Why don’t you take this home for the weekend? It’s just about like any other autonomous car. Well, almost.”

I got in the driver’s seat. Jacob walked around to the other side, opened the door, and pointed to a dial on the console. “There are five settings. ‘0’ is like your car. Well, maybe not quite like it, but close. ‘1–3’ is, well, try them. Oh, and push the dial to turn the system completely off or back on. See you Monday morning.”

Before I could ask any questions, Jacob was halfway back to the elevator.

The start button brought the display to life. The main screen showed a 2D map set at a mile radius with my location in the middle, and a graphic of the “Mode Knob.” It was set to ‘0, Auto Drive OFF.’

I started off towards home, about 30 miles away from AAVCS. The autonomous system was completely off! This is what a self-driving car should be. Used to be all cars were self-driving— you had to drive it yourself.

I pressed the dial to activate the system.

“Destination?”

I spoke my home address.

“Park in the garage?”

“Well, yeah. Sure.” So it figured out that we’re heading home.

Mode ‘0’ was on the display, and the car took over. It was a bit timid in traffic, but not as much as my car. What the heck. I turned the dial to ‘4.’

“Password.”

Jacob hadn’t mentioned passwords, so I turned the dial to ‘3.’ Hundreds of additional symbols were instantly added to the map on the display. The car took off. Really took off. It was braking late, found holes in traffic, took good lines through corners, and where traffic allowed would blast through speed limits like we were on the Autobahn.

The car was taking an indirect route home, like it knew all of the shortcuts, and where all of the fixed radar speed traps were. We made every traffic light which never happens. When we got to the house in a little over 40 minutes (that trip usually takes an hour), it opened the garage door and parked itself. No big deal, I suppose, except that I’d left the opener in my car. Wow.

I called Jacob on his cell.

“That’s amazing! An E-ticket ride. Like Mario was behind the wheel.”

“You must have selected ‘3.’ That’s the Mario mode, patterned from his driving style. ‘1’ is Parnelli, and ‘2’ is Donohue. In autonomous mode, the car monitors vehicle dynamics, maximizing performance. It also communicates with every traffic related system available, including stop light timing, traffic, weather, mobile and fixed speed enforcement, service and emergency vehicle locations, road conditions, 911 calls, and school hours. It also monitors local Google traffic and online communication activities like Facebook and Twitter and steers clear of idiots talking on their phones. Basically instead of Big Brother watching you, you’re monitoring Big Brother.”

“What?”

“Oh, there’s more. We call the on-board system SA-II for Situation Aware, Phase II. The SA-II doesn’t merely identify stationary and moving bogies, it anticipates where bogies will be and if they will become a threat to avoid or intercept. In short, the SA-II takes advantage of all available inputs from the cloud instead of being a slave to them. The technology was borrowed from the autonomous race cars. The SA-II in a performance vehicle would probably make you uncomfortable. It’s really something.”

“Intercept?”

“Yes. Mode ‘4’ activates the evasive mode if it or the driver feels threatened, and can turn the car into a weapon if attacked. Just like a Jason Bourne movie.”

I put several hundred miles on the car that weekend. It was fantastic. Stealthy, invisible. But I dreaded Monday morning. After turning the Silver Streak back in, I got into my car and pushed the start button.

“Destination?”

Destination? My car didn’t talk. Then I noticed a dial mounted to the console with marks for Modes 0–4.

Thanks, Jacob.

Still, though, as cool as the system is, I’d just as soon have an old dumb Chevy.

P.S.

This reminds me of a story. Grandpa made a wooden box for Dad, a toddler at the time, to sit on in the middle of the front seat so he could see out the windshield. Dad could name all of the car brands and loved sitting in the driver’s seat and pretending to drive. Over the years Dad counted down to the day when he could get his driver’s license. Driving an automobile and going anywhere you wanted to was a right of passage. The shear joy of driving! Dad had all sorts of cars and trucks over the years, including many performance cars.

I guess many people just don’t want to drive anymore. Something has been lost along the way. The independent spirit has been sequestered.

 

12 Comments
  1. Norman

    Sorry to say I would rather suffer from projectile vomiting and post-sriracha diarrhea than utilize a “driverless car”. But dumbing down to the absolute epitome of the term is where the nerds and nannys of the world are effortlessly steering us. Oh, and towards crushing your car.

  2. Christopher

    Great article, very provocative take on the future of “mobility Design.” Amazing how Sid Mead was able to nail these themes so early in his career. The stuff of movies and intergalactic travel. I happen to enjoy the transportation modules in “minority report”. I also enjoyed the floating projectiles in the latest version of “Total recall,” especially as you could at least drive those floating shapes. I’m sure reality and the ACLU will come up with many reasons to tread softly into the unknown future of AI and self-driving mobile modules.The bigger issue is what are you going to do with all the people in the next decade. Current infrastructure will be questionable let alone the self driving nightmare

    I’m a sick individual who prefers my 1934 ford coupe, no radio, 8 cylinder sound. Whatever

  3. Andrew Minney

    I too would not have one! For me being a driver I have options, like the bus. OK I am lucky living on the outskirts of London we still have a bus service or two. Some totally diesel, some hybrid but ALL with a driver. I also have a “Freedom Pass” which means in the London area I can hop on a bus, train or metro system for FREE! Buses are free all day and all over Britain. I could go by bus (local services only) to Scotland if I wanted and had a lot of time! Trains are restricted to about a 25 mile radius of London and only after 9:30 am. Metro is like the bus – FREE all day and night!
    I will stop driving soon as my reaction times are no longer as sharp as they were and I will NEVER ride in an autonomous car as I enjoy the act and art of driving.

  4. Michael Yount

    If only we could get the 80% of other drivers I encounter every day who, despite sitting behind the steering wheel, AREN’T actually driving their non-autonomous cars into autonomous cars…..

  5. Mel Francis

    The main reason the automobile gained so much acceptance over the horse in the first place, was that it offered increased ‘personal mobility’, to anyone seated on its chassis. Whether you were the driver, or just a passenger, you could cover many more miles in an hour, or day and the only thing holding you back, was your ability to wrestle with the dynamics of the controls.

    Some of us jumped at the opportunity to learn those intricate skills and they became known as enthusiasts, while the larger number of drivers didn’t and considered driving as simply a tedious chore, to be borne as payment for their own personal mobility. Their inattention is what causes most accidents on the roads.

    Well, the roads are about to get much safer, as these non-drivers will soon, no-longer be forced to inflict their disabilities upon the rest of us. In fact, even as an enthusiast-driver, I’m looking forward to owning an autonomous car as I get older and my reaction-time lengthens, as I’d still like to retain my own personal mobility, to be really able to ‘get around’ when I’m 90, if I can luckily, last to that age.

    If you really cherish exercising your driving skills, you will be among a quickly diminishing minority, but there will be many places, well outside the larger cities, where you can still drive non-autonomous vehicles, such as road-racing venues on private property. After your autonomous pickup arrives at the track, you’ll unload your vintage hand-controlled vehicle from the trailer and have a wonderful day exploring the limits of your vehicle’s dynamics, then return, with your autonomous tow vehicle handling the chore and stop-and-go tedium of dense freeway traffic, back to your homestead.

    I can live with this future, if it comes to pass, quite easily!

  6. Paul Thompson

    Once autonomous cars are the norm in the big cities, I plan on taking a big hyper dog to, say Time Square NYC, and just let him loose to run around in the intersection….

    And watch the gridlock happen!

    Paul

  7. As part of my response to autonomous vehicles in a mobility interview, I predicted that when ALL (or most) cars are self-driving, there will be created ‘driving parks’ where owners of driven cars can enjoy a day, afternoon or night driving their old cars. You’ll probably have to pay lots for that weird chemical called gasoline, but the experience will be gold. Remember when horses gave way to cars, some people kept their horses and rode them for enjoyment on equestrian estates. Now, horses are expensive to keep. So will ‘old’ cars be. Save your money for that stiff fee to enjoy piloting your cherry rig around charmingly laid out country roads, hills and the occasional cute village.

  8. EDWARD P MATULA

    WELL SAID MEL. I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOUR COMMENTS.

  9. I’m a 60’s guy, but I have to agree with Syd’s prediction. It’s coming and the dumb-car enthusiasts (like me) cannot stop it, because the up-and-coming generation was raised on MHz’s and not MPG’s. They don’t enjoy the activity of driving. I just hope it can be staved off long enough for me to finish my car build project and can drive the thing before it is relegated by the Feds, local governments, and insurance companies to those driving estates.

  10. Chris In Australia

    Can I get one that goes to ’11’ ( Spinal Tap joke)?

  11. Mel Francis

    Chris in Australia; joke fully understood, but your comment made me consider what that setting might be like. You might actually find an ’11’ setting on an autonomous scale, quite difficult to bear. Most racers attempt to maintain a level ’10’ while racing, which indicates their ultimate level of human control over their car. A driver works his way up to a ’10’ level, getting accustomed to the input processing speed and physical control response that it requires.

    But while level ’11’ will surely soon be attainable by an autonomous racecar, a driver/passenger in that vehicle might become nauseated, as everything is happening so quickly, without any input from them. For this reason, most seasoned racing drivers prefer to drive themselves at high speed, rather than be a passenger and have another person drive the same speed for them.

    You could argue that rally navigators have to exist in this environment, but even then, they’re giving directional input to the driver, which allows them to participate in the driving exercise somewhat. Autonomous military aircraft have already proven to be able to accomplish maneuvers that can sicken any human pilot along for the ride.

  12. Tom

    Who asked for this crap anyway ?
    I never could afford an airplane, now I can’t afford car !
    It’s coming:
    Govt. Subsidies:
    Electric car = $7500
    Autonamous= $50,000

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