Cruise Control

I remember watching a demonstration on television several years ago, in which an automobile parallel parked itself at the touch of a button. It seemed to me like an interesting novelty, but I couldn’t imagine that male drivers (who famously won’t even ask for directions) would ever admit that they need any help parking their own cars.

Nor could I imagine that I would ever trust my car to manage such a complex function. I kept picturing myself trying to explain to some irate motorist that the dent in his fender was all my car’s fault and that I really had nothing to do with it.

Those notions, of course, betray my age, and the fact that my life has been tied up with cars and car culture from day one. By the time I was five years old I could identify every make and model on the road, and what sort of person would be likely to drive each one. Then there were the toys.

Toy cars were divided into three main categories among my friends and me. First were models, which we assembled from kits that varied greatly in size and complexity. The more elaborate versions included hundreds of parts, and complications such as working doors and axles that swiveled. I have always felt that building these things taught me to follow directions, which paid off later in school and elsewhere.

Second were the “matchbox” cars, which back then were manufactured in England by the Lesney company. There was just something compelling about them, and we all collected them avidly. We also invented a variety of games that we could play with the cars, whether alone or with each other. Like my baseball cards, I gave away my collection when I reached junior high school and lived to regret doing so.

The third category was racecars that ran around a track, powered by electricity. Unlike the others, these were not something we bought at Woolworths with money we saved up from our allowances. They were expensive, and were almost always Christmas gifts from an exceptionally generous Santa.

They were also toys that we tired of quickly, because they didn’t require much participation from us. Our function consisted of watching them go around in a circle, and putting them back on the track after they went flying off of it.

Which brings me back to self-parking cars. They are on the streets now, but it turns out that they are just the tip of the iceberg. The talk of the car world in 2016 was fully autonomous cars, which are being developed at breakneck speed.

All the major automakers, plus several tech giants, startup companies and auto futurists such as Uber and Tesla are investing billions of dollars in pilot projects. The stakes in the race are enormous, and the impending impact on society is hard to exaggerate.

Currently, around 1.3 million people are killed each year in automobile accidents, 37 thousand of which are Americans. Another 20-50 million are injured, and property damage amounts to $230 billion. Analysts expect driverless cars to cut traffic accidents by half.

This year, consumers will buy 75 million conventional cars worldwide, at a cost of nine trillion dollars, or the equivalent of about half of the entire gross national product of the United States. In spite of this gigantic expenditure, those vehicles will only be driven about five percent of the time. Most often, they will be sitting in garages or parking spaces.

That is not an efficient use of capital, and it is not the model for the future of transportation. Most economists think that autonomous vehicles will not be purchased primarily by individuals, but rather will be owned either by ride services like Uber and Lyft, or directly by the manufacturers. This change will have widespread repercussions.

Think about real estate, for example. Approximately 15 percent of residential construction is devoted to garages, and urban developers generally allocate around 25 percent of downtown acreage to parking facilities. Then start adding all the large parking lots for shopping malls, airports, sports venues, schools, factories, car dealers, hotels, etc., much of which covers very pricey ground. If half of it could be converted to other uses, it would quite literally change our entire landscape.

The financial industry will also face a major restructuring, because car loans and leases are a big part of the business, with more than a trillion dollars outstanding right now. Consumers will pay as they go for transportation, or buy some sort of pass, but it should be more cost-effective by far, leaving them more money to invest in education, healthcare, retirement or whatever.

Car insurance will change completely, because it won’t be drivers who carry liability, but the cars themselves. There will be fewer accidents for a variety of reasons, including superior recognition of objects and situations, adherence to speed limits, and the fact that robots don’t get tired, distracted or drunk. There will be accidents, however, because machines aren’t perfect and the real world will always inject itself in unpredictable ways.

As a matter of fact, the first fatality ascribed to a driverless car has already happened. Last May, a Tesla on autopilot hit a truck and then struck a utility pole, killing the passenger, who was watching a DVD at the time.

That raises the issue that tech experts think will likely be the greatest hurdle to overcome during the transition from human to robot drivers. Even though autonomous vehicles will save thousands of lives, they will also take some, and the public may have a hard time accepting the implications of that trade-off.

Apparently the technology itself does not worry them, because it is already surpassing human capabilities, and improving rapidly. It relies on something called “deep learning” algorithms, which analyzes data from an array of sensors on the car, recognizes what is moving where, and makes decisions based on millions of miles of highway experience.

The software is open-sourced, so all these tech companies are building on each other’s progress in real time, and the cost of storage and processing power continues to drop. The technology is so accessible that some people are even building driverless cars on their own.

Autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction, and their impact on our culture is not 20 years down the road. Google cars have already logged 2 million miles, and will become commonplace over the next five years. In 10 years, robots could be in the majority on the highway.

In the meantime, I hope you keep selling toy cars. They could be the only cars this generation of kids will ever get to drive.

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