Watching an interesting video from TED on the status of driverless cars, I got thinking about the future of cars (as you can see from the video, not very far away technically). Though they have not really changed for a while for the better part of the previous century, I believe they are about to change radically within 10-20 years.
So why is this a big deal?
- Because these cars can tirelessly drive themselves 24/7, the number of accidents will decrease drastically because a car does not get drunk and does not get tired. It will become possible to drink and get home in your own car. Further, handicaped people will be able to move around the city without asking anyone for help. Even blind people should be able to get from place to place without any help. This will be a game changer.
- Once these cars are generalized, because cars are less likely to reckless driving and can be made to cooperate in a swarm mentality, it is possible to optimize traffic in such a way that it will be faster to drive from place to place. Because of less accidents, there will be less traffic jams. Even when there is a problem, the car can be envisoned to automatically reroute through traffic with traffic information.
- Because people will not be focused on driving, the time they spend commuting daily will become available to them... watching tv while driving to work, reading a book while commuting or having a conversation with your back to the road should not be a problem. Since the driver will not have to focus on the road, we can eventually expect to see the interior of cars changing, more designed to look like a living room than a car like we know it today. why not with a couch able to be turned into a bed... and maybe a table in the center. We could even imagine cars to become a self contained room to be integrated into the house or the workplace... think motor home of a shrunk motorhome.
But it is not only the fact that cars that will be self driving that will change our interaction with them. Improvements in fuel consumption as well as the generalization of hybrids - including plug in cars that run on electricity should change our interaction with cars. This is especially true since the improvement in battery energy storage as well as improvement in engine efficiency should allow people to drive farther than they have in the past for much less. For now, completely autonomous solar cars are uncomfortable weird looking prototypes but it is easy to imagine a point in time when the constant improvements to solar panel should make it possible to drive a car virtually for free while reducing the carbon footprint and impact on the environment. When people are able to travel virtually free in a comfortable and secure way without focusing even a minute no driving, what was once considered a tedious trip could be turned into an enjoyable experiences.
Need for an original date? why not set out for lunch in your living room on wheels on your way to a romantic destination spend a part of the day there without worrying about parking since the car could self drive to the cheapest parking spot and summoned at will... valet parking for the masses anytime anywhere. Then, on your way back, focus on spending quality time getting to know the person you care about... even sleeping on the way back if the trip is too long. If the person is boring or if there is a fight, why not use the time to surf the net, watch a movie, read the latest book or stay in touch with the latest news. Further, because electric cars are more silent, people should have less cars waking them up in the middle of the night and places known as honking nightmares should fade away.
Because we already have mobility through laptops mobile phones and mobile internet, the workplace environment could become different too. This could give a whole new different meaning telecommuting... "swing by my office"... an employee could visit clients or remote offices without leaving his desk. You could even imagine running an errand, dropping off or picking up kids while working.
So how far away is this technology? From a feasability standpoint, not very far. Some hybrid cars already can provide us with improved mileage, some existing cars such as the prius model with solar panel roof can even heat/ cool your car without you being there. Within less than 10 years, a majority of cars sold will be hybrids and a lot of promising technologies will gradual increase in efficiency. States like California are already envisioning banning all gas cars by 2050.
As for self driving cars, prototypes like the google car prototypes are already here. Interestingly after being driven thousands of miles, the only time of them one of them got into an accident is when a driver that was there for legal reason temporarily took the wheel. However, we can see people worried about having a completely autonomous car drive. Though there is some need for some time to make sure the technology is fail proof, the technology is around the corner.
The biggest hurdle will be in people's minds. People will resist change and Laws will have to change too. We will have to determine whose legal responsibility it is if a car kills someone (though this will be a lot less likely in a purely automated environment. Also, we will have to work out a transition into a world which will have human driven cars as well as self driven cars.
Though these challenges are interesting, it is nothing impossible to work out. I expect the first commercial self driving cars to appear as high end luxury cars between 2020 and 2030 and then, gradually, I expect the features to become more and more standard because the benefits will kill all resistance and uneasiness in people. Insurances, when they see a reduced cost will obviously naturally encourage the transition by charging higher premiums to cars they consider less safe.
As for how cars will look inside, no one can be sure for certain. No one can predict the future but one thing is certain, there are signs tomorrow will be a more friendly tomorrow.