What just happened? A few years ago, self-driving vehicles were science fiction, but today, you can hail an Uber self-driving Volvo in Pittsburgh.
You don’t have to be a futurist to connect the dots. Once autonomous driving technology is proven, it’ll be in every car. It’s not hard to imagine that motorists will soon secure sizable insurance discounts for letting the onboard computer do all the driving.
From there, you can envision a not-too-distant future in which you can’t even drive your own car to your vacation destination. So long, great American road trip. That sensation of steering your own vehicle down the road, of feeling the asphalt under your own tires, will be history.
“Technology is poised to disrupt the automotive industry,” says Amit Jain, director of strategic planning for Verizon Telematics. “And that means the way people interact with cars on a daily basis will dramatically change.”
Why should you worry? Because it’s happening faster than anyone imagined. If you’d told me a short while ago that autonomous vehicles were around the corner, I would have laughed out loud. If you’re snickering at the idea that you might one day not be able to directly control the vehicle you’re in, you might want to think again.
Maybe the question you should be asking is this: What should I do before the American road trip becomes obsolete?
First, a reality check: Experts say the self-driving future, at least as I describe it, is still a dot on the horizon. A recent Zipcar survey of drivers found a consensus that self-driving cars will begin to outnumber regular vehicles in about 25 years.
“The notion of actually prohibiting people from driving and controlling their own vehicles is likely very far off,” says Mark Prommel, a partner at the New York design firm PENSA. “It would require huge shifts that would likely happen very slowly in the infrastructure and planning of our cities, roadways and highways, not to mention the ways that cars are currently built, marketed and sold.”
Lauren Fix, an automotive columnist, agrees.
“Although this may sound a little bit like the Jetsons,” she says, “it is possible, and it is likely further down the road.”
My skepticism of the technology isn’t shared by all drivers. Henry Strozeski, a retired executive for a non-profit company who lives in Winter Park, Fla., is “ecstatic” at the promise of self-driving vehicles.
“Once the technology is proven, I could see an increase in road trips if all you had to do was input your destination and sit back and read or watch TV while the car is your chauffeur,” he says.
He’s hardly alone. A recent poll by the Consumer Technology Association suggested 75% of American motorists are excited about autonomous vehicles, and an even higher number (79%) say self-driving vehicles will be safer than human drivers.
As someone who puts about 40,000 miles a year on the odometer, I love the idea of leaving the driving to a computer. No more nodding off at the wheel. No more arriving at my destination after 12 hours behind the wheel, feeling utterly wiped out.
Then I think about the joys of motoring somewhere. Try renting a convertible in Miami in January and trekking down U.S. Highway 1 to Key West. There’s a tactile pleasure of driving the car across the bridges of the Overseas Highway. Or make the trip from Salt Lake City to Denver in the early fall, just as the leaves are beginning to change. Do you really want to hand the job over to a Hal 9000 wannabe?
Yes, says Lynne Adams, a retired lawyer from Melbourne, Fla. She loves road trips, and when she and her husband retired, they spent days on the road in a fifth-wheel RV.
“Wonderful travel,” she says. “We could never have seen so much of the country any other way.”
Now that they’re in their 70s, they feel marathon drives are unsafe. They bought a cabin that’s a 12-hour drive from their home and are considering hiring someone to drive them back and forth.
“As soon as a driverless SUV is on the market — especially if it can be switched into manual-drive from time to time — we’ll have one,” she says.
Ah, that’s the catch.
Autonomous cars would be incredibly convenient, but what if we can’t switch to manual? What if it’s too expensive or even illegal? (Insert scene from your favorite sci-fi movie, where the hero must disable the mandatory autodrive function on a futuristic car.)
I say, bring on the self-driving vehicles, but don’t make them too self-driving. Call me nostalgic, but I’ll miss the feeling of steering my own car. Even the thought that it may happen has made me a little more appreciative of the road trip. I loved driving before, but after the unexpected advances in autonomous vehicle technology, I’m not going to waste any opportunity to drive to my next destination. Neither should you.
How to experience self-driving cars now
• Hail an Uber in Pittsburgh. Ridesharing company Uber tests its autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. The cars aren’t completely independent. They come with a driver, who can intervene in certain situations, such as bad weather. More information can be found at Uber’s site.
Why self-driving Ubers are rolling around Pittsburgh
• Call a Grab in Singapore. Grab, the Asian version of Uber, has been testing an autonomous taxi developed with Boston-based NuTonomy in Singapore. If you call a Grab taxi in the North 1 neighborhood, you could get picked up by either a driverless Renault Zoe or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Oh, and the ride is reportedly free during the test. You’ll be accompanied by two NuTonomy engineers, just to be safe.
• Buy a Tesla. The auto manufacturer’s engineers are working on sensors and software that will reportedly allow self-driving on its new Model S and Model X electric cars. You’ll still be able to switch back to manual control.