Are You Ready For Cars That Think?
Years ago NASA began a program to create hardware and software that would allow their interplanetary and deep space probes to make quick decisions without the need for immediate input from earth bound observers and operators. Given the variables and dangers present when a space probe comes into contact with unexpected situations far from its home planet, that type of simple preprogrammed decision making was and is a necessary part of any on board computer system.
Although we are not quite there yet as far as anything resembling true Artificial Intelligence goes, current technology does allow for on board computer systems to consider a number of pre-programmed threats to the well being of a space probe and make adjustments to avoid them. That same technology has slowly been making its way into the lives we live and the vehicles we drive over the past few years. It began with preprogrammed factory robots able to build things better and faster than humans. That same basic programmable technology has expanded to include self-parking cars and been widened to offer everything from automatic lane drifting warning and adjusting systems for sleepy drivers, to the current crop of self-driving concepts like the Google vehicle currently being tested in the USA.
Hardware and software designers hope to take programmable robotic style decision making technology to a whole new level in the next ten years. Not only are we likely to see the use of more mechanical robots in places like fast food restaurants where the number of humans required to prepare and serve food is normally short of the number of applicants who will apply and remain on the job once hired, but expect to get everything from on site theater tickets to items in big box stores from non-human robotic associates and cashiers. It may also not be very long before you are checked into a hotel in person during late night hours by a computer. And, yes, we will all probably have to deal with even more of those automated and always annoying ‘press 1 for this or two for that’ phone systems.
While it may be some time before we see the science fiction version of very human looking robots helping out around the house or in retail settings, there is no doubt that there will be more machines like those which currently vacuum your floors and cut your lawn without the need of a human to guide them. Auto makers have taken notice of this trend and seem to have found themselves torn between the need to build vehicles that humans like to drive and those that will eventually make better driving decisions for people operating them.
Just think about how many accidents are caused by drivers who make bad or improper decisions while operating their vehicles because they unable to see another one coming their way or are unaware of problematic road conditions they are about to encounter. Imagine what would happen if on board systems instantly detected possible problems or threats nearby and kept their human drivers from making a mistake that could cause a great deal of vehicle damage and bodily injury, or even kill someone. That is the kind of technology that auto makers love.
Like more technological jumps involving vehicles on public roads the idea of cars that think will have to pass the smell test of any number of federal and state agencies before even being considered for approval. That does not even include how insurance companies will view and judge such innovations. I envision a long period of testing and nit picking for anything that even resembles a vehicle that operates itself. Right now there is already serious debate among lawmakers and regulatory agencies over the eventual use of technology which may soon allow cars to be remotely parked and retrieved by owners who do not care to fish for a parking spot in a parking garage or walk through one loaded down with packages at all hours.
Self driving cars may be good for people who are not physically or mentally able to operate a vehicle for any number of reasons from long or short term disability or age, to sudden illness while driving. However, I believe that the vast majority of auto makers appear to see that technology as more of an add-on then a staple for the future of driving. Most people will still want to drive their own vehicles. The exception may be self-operating mass transit conveyances like buses, trains and trolleys, but until we see the dawn of cars that can think for themselves and make the kind of quick adjustments requested by their flesh and blood passengers to change course or make a stop for pizza, that technology will have to play second fiddle to human operators.