I have an interesting relationship with Tesla. On one hand, the conservationist in me admires the company’s go-it-alone approach to reduce carbon emissions through initiating commercialization of the electric vehicle; revolutionizing the automotive retail experience not just by direct sales alone, but personalizing the educational experience for consumers on the benefits of driving and owning clean energy and environmentally friendly cars.
This unique approach to selling cars has not just turned the California based brand into the automotive equivalent of Apple, but it has created EV evangelists, put EV’s on the radar of consumers and spurred the development of EV’s by other OEM’s. It certainly helps that the ubiquitous (At least in California; It’s the once-percenter’s Toyota Camry) Tesla Model S has overwhelming loads of aesthetic appeal.
The joy of not driving
The car enthusiast in me is concerned at the appliance like nature of some of Tesla’s vehicle technology like Autopilot, which allows the car to drive itself in certain driving conditions (this makes the car semi-autonomous).
Far from alone in this growing and widely adopted vision of the future of “the car” transitioning from a means of personal transportation as we know it today to an appliance used for the purpose of mobility, Tesla would be credited as one of the pioneers of this revolutionary way of not just how we look at cars, but how they’re engineered and used.
A history of auto autonomy
The march to vehicular singularity occurred long before Tesla became a household name.
We’ve had the first step to autonomous drive in cars for years by way of the steering column stalk in cars everywhere that initiates cruise control. We’ve just never really given much thought to, because while it alleviates drivers of having to worry about keeping the car moving, we’re still largely in control of what our cars are doing and responsible to remain vigilant of ever changing road and traffic conditions, and to act accordingly.
The thought of relinquishing the responsibility of driving to a supercomputer where the role of the driver is reduced down to spectator, is both interesting and terrifying at the same time. For me, the role of autonomous drive should be an extension of cruise control; It’s there when you need it for that long drive and/or road trip (i.e. from San Fran back to L.A.) or sitting in obnoxious L.A. traffic, not to take over your role as driver unless that is truly your desire.
It doesn’t help that we’ve become inundated with technology as a society that serves more as an unwanted (albeit enticing) distraction than a truly beneficial means of enhancing our quality of life. It’s this latter reality that has become part of the marketing pitch behind equipping cars with autonomous drive. We saw it in the Volvo 26 Concept where a portion of the dash turns into an obtrusively large infotainment screen where you can use the internet or watch movies at your leisure.
The majority of consumers today will be taken by the novelty of being able to do more things while on the go in their car that they would ordinarily do at home or elsewhere. This is suspect on some level when you call into question the “why”: Why not watch movies and use the internet at home? This is really a philosophical question that perhaps is best reserved for another time and perhaps a different forum, but nonetheless this is a very real question to give thought to.
The existence of the steering wheel has even been called into question by not just Tesla CEO/ Co-Founder, Elon Musk but other members of the automotive industry. Fortunately, that part of the conversation can barely gain any actual traction thanks to legislation locally and abroad.
There are simply too many legal hurdles to clear and real world testing to be done before any car is made for sale sans steering wheel. Don’t forget to mention that it will take several generations to become accustomed to the idea of a car that can drive itself before the steering wheel becomes a museum relic.
Various poles have been conducted that reflect that the majority of drivers fear a car that can fully drive itself, and even more so, a car without a steering wheel. Thank goodness the demand simply isn’t there; The driving enthusiast in you and me still has something to look forward to.
There’s also been discussion of the possibility that if autonomous cars prove effective in executing their objective in reducing accidents and potentially reducing or eliminating traffic, that human drivers could be banned or outlawed. Perhaps this argument is way ahead of its time as the first fully autonomous cars have yet to actually hit the market. At the same time, one has to wonder what the implications would be long term.
Autonomous =’s connected
With this in mind, you have to consider that autonomous drive is also part of the fully connected car reality (cars that are fully digitally integrated, a.k.a. on the grid). It will most likely be unavoidable long term in the future to avoid connected car ownership (that is unless you plan on hoarding classic or soon to be classic cars absent of any digital integration).
These systems and their internet connectivity will expose them to the vulnerabilities associated with being online. Though much is being done before mass market penetration of connected and autonomous cars to safeguard against malicious threats that come from black-hat hackers, it will be all but impossible to keep the worst from happening: No matter how good the security around the software programming is, it is not a matter of “if” a fully connected and autonomous car will be compromised, it is a matter of “when.”
Regulators and policy makers must enact standards for the auto industry for the protection of software that controls the autonomous functions of the cars driving ability, as well as enact tough penalties for individuals with malicious intent that would seek to hack into these systems.
With millions of consumers on the road now and in the future, vehicle occupant safety must continue to be a top priority and concern.
It’s kind of weird to start talking about electric cars then go into the conversation on autonomous drive, but that’s pretty much how it goes: The two are not mutually exclusive going forward; they’re one in the same. It’s safe to say that this is the blueprint for the car of the future, whether we like it or not. Perhaps if I live to be an old man and I can no longer drive, and the technology has been “baked” enough I’ll even be comfortable with the idea, but there’s much time between now and then. We may not know what the future holds, but we certainly have an idea of where it’s headed, with or without us. Scary.