Technology

Looking forward to the self-driving car

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Google self-driving car

Google self-driving car

I was born in Germany and still live there in the land of the Autobahn. Cars are an essential part of our society, social life, and a major part of our economy. Some (I would even say most) of the greatest car brands in the world are German: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Volkswagen.

I got my driving license just a few weeks after I turned 18 and bought my first car with some money I had saved (sadly, it was not a German car, just an old used Fiat Panda, which did a great job for a few years).

Over time, I have driven BMW, Audi and Mercedes cars, and next year, I might get a new company car. My wife usually drives the company car with the kids, and I use our 14-year-old Renault Twingo, which is great for the city (although I think Renault is an awful brand but OK as long as it takes me where I want).

However, I wonder how long I will continue to own a car or even two cars.

If you live in the city, cars are less and less of a status symbol. In the past, you showed how successful you were by having a car bigger than your neighbor’s.

This is not the case anymore. It might be even the opposite. If you drive a big SUV in a city like Hamburg, more and more people think you are a dickhead: you spend a lot of money for something you rarely use, your car takes up too much valuable space in the city, it is not ecological, and so on.

In the past years, we have seen the rise of car sharing systems like Car2Go or DriveNow. With the tap of your fingers, you can “rent” a car, and you don´t have to worry about anything.

I have been following the idea of autonomous cars since 2004, when the first DARPA Grand Challenge took place. It was held in the Mojave Desert, and none of the participants made it to the end of the 240km route.

“Sandstorm” made it the farthest: 11.78km.

“Sandstorm“ from DARPA 2004

“Sandstorm“ from DARPA 2004

Fast forward to 2015, just a little more than 10 years since the first DARPA Challenge: Google has been testing autonomous driving in the last six years with specially equipped Lexus and Toyotas and has driven a total of 1.7 million miles (2.7 million kilometers) with just 11 “minor” accidents. It is adding another 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) every week.

Google just announced the next step: its own prototype – no Lexus or Toyota anymore – will hit the roads in Mountain View this summer. Google is basically becoming a car manufacturer.

What is interesting is the approach Google is taking: it takes out the steering wheel and pedals right away. No slow transition, no evolution. Revolution is what Google plans: the completely autonomous vehicle, one where you don´t “drive“ anymore. One that just takes you where you want to go.

Most car manufacturers take another approach. They will integrate more and more features over the course of time to move–maybe one day–to a fully autonomous car. They already build safety features like automatic braking and lane departure warnings into their cars.

Mercedes-Benz F015

Mercedes-Benz F015

Car manufacturers plan with a wider time horizon than Google. Google wants everything. Fast. As Chris Urmson, team leader of the self-driving car project put it in a 2014 blog post:

“Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving.”

Time will tell which approach will be the right one. There is probably space for both: the ones who don’t want that transition overnight and those who are happy to jump on a completely new way to travel. The great thing is, they can co-exist!

My guess is that we will be used to self-driving cars on our streets in the next ten years.

Acceptance is already there and will grow over the years. Early adaptors will jump into self-driving cars once they become available.

First, we will see the shared driving services use self-driving cars, and we will all love it.

Why?

  • No huge spending every few years for your own car.
  • Getting rid of all the costs of owning a car: garage, insurance, regular inspections, tyre changes for summer and winter, etc.
  • Pay for what you use.
  • Do you need a big van that takes you and your family somewhere? Are you on your own and need to ride through the city? You will always get the car that is right for your situation.
  • Do you want to take a long ride? Why not do it overnight and sleep in your car all the way?
  • The more self-driving cars there are on the road, the fewer traffic jams we will see.
  • Finally, no more searching for a parking spot! You exit the car, and you don´t worry about anything. The car might pick up the next person, or it will just park itself.
  • Are you drunk and want to go home? No worries! You won’t have to call a cab, and more importantly, there will be no more drunk driving!
  • It will save thousands of lives every year! Self-driving cars will be more secure. There will be no guarantee that they will never get into accidents, but when looking at how dangerous it is to drive on our own, it can’t get any worse.
  • Do your kids need to get around the city? At night? You’ll never worry again!
  • Imagine the possibilities for disabled people! They will have the same flexibility as everyone else. They will be able to get anywhere, without any problems.
  • We will have fewer cars in the cities. Lower rates of car ownership and fewer cars sitting around all day will make our cities much more pleasant to live in.
  • It will be the final breakthrough for electric cars. You won’t have to worry about where and when to charge the car.The self-driving car will pull itself out of service and drive somewhere to charge itself.
  • It will change public transportation for sure. We will probably need fewer bus lines and fewer subways.
  • Finally, you can work while traveling and listen to your own music. No one can disturb you, and there will be no smell of the food of your neighbor in the train.
  • There will be no more car theft.
  • All the expensive car parking spots will be gone, and houses or parks can be built on their ground.
  • Do you want to arrive somewhere at a certain time? The self-driving car will be smart enough to tell you when it has to pick you up.
  • The whole transportation of goods on streets can be done more efficiently and at night, when no one else is on the streets. No stops will be needed, except for charging, and there will be no tired drivers.

I think there will be so many more useful cases that we can’t imagine right now. The shift will be as big as it was when people started to change their horses to use cars.

Of course, it will have downsides as well. A lot of people will lose their jobs. We will see car manufacturers go bankrupt, insurance companies go out of business, and the whole parking industry go down the drain. Probably, a few more things will happen.

However, no one cared about horse traders, blacksmiths, saddle manufacturers, etc. more than 100 years ago either. Change will happen. Either you use your chances or you don’t.

Guess what I will do when all that becomes a reality? I might start a Porsche rental, where people can rent 911s from 2015 with a manual transmission to drive them for fun because they are bored with the efficiency of electric cars.

What are your thoughts? What do think will change? Do you fear that change? Or do you see great potential? Just share your thoughts in the comments.

 

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