Your Next Car Will Be Part Robot

Futurists have been predicting self-driving cars for decades, but for a long time it wasn't because the idea was a natural extrapolation of existing technology. Instead, from the standpoint of the 1950s or so, it just seemed like something we'd have in The Future, along with robot maids, vacations on the moon, and a spectacular network of vacuum tubes in every home. Today, almost all the technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is either already in existence or in the development process, and Google has already allowed its driverless cars to go hundreds of thousands of miles on their own. So the Department of Transportation has issued a policy statement laying out some of the issues that are likely to be confronted as these technologies develop, and establishing its research agenda to address the questions they'll need to answer in order to properly regulate driverless cars.

The end point many people envision is that not only will all cars be self-driving, but you won't even own your car, since it's a waste for it to sit in your driveway 23 hours a day. Instead, all cars would operate like taxis; when you need to go someplace you'd just summon a car, and it would zip on over to your door in seconds. That may or may not happen, and if it does it's going to take some time. But if that day comes, government is obviously going to have to be involved, making sure that everything operates safely. People have reasonable concerns about computerized systems being hacked, and the cars making mistakes—as a law professor quoted by The New York Times says, "The first time that a driverless vehicle swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller, someone’s going to write, 'robot car kills baby to save groceries.'" But that risk has to be understood in the context of the daily carnage on our roads. In the last decade for which we have statistics, almost 400,000 Americans were killed in car accidents, most of which happen because human beings are just not capable of safely operating two-ton steel boxes hurtling down the road at incredible speeds.

There are certainly skeptics out there, but one thing they should keep in mind is that it isn't as though one day Toyota will debut its new Roboterra model, and you'll have to choose whether you want a regular car or a self-driving car. Instead, there are going to be dozens of incremental steps where cars take more and more control out of human hands. As with features like power windows and keyless locks, the new technologies that assert control (with or without your explicit permission) will start in luxury cars and then move down to more and more models until they're standard on all cars. And many of them are already available, from ABS brakes to lane-assist systems that keep you centered, to adaptive cruise control that slows you down when you get too close to another car, to systems that wake you up by vibrating the steering wheel if a camera catches you nodding off. So you're going to buy a robot car whether you like it or not.

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