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Driverless Cars: A Look at Autonomous Technologies

Darrek Olson
GM Autonomous Driving

Growing up at the tail end of the 20th century was a unique experience. It seemed like every other week there was a press conference announcing yet another major advancement in the realm of technology. This influx of innovation covered the gamut, from more powerful video game systems to increasingly smaller and more capable computers and phones. The pummeling nature of each new announcement almost gave millennials like me the wrong idea. As far as I knew, it was just how the world worked. New Year’s Eve wasn’t about getting a kiss, it signaled the impending announcement of yet another Nintendo console that would inevitably result in disappointment. I’m finally at an age where I think I understand the concept of diminishing returns, accepting that it’s simply unreasonable to think that technological innovation will always match it’s last great breakthrough. Sometimes, we have to settle for an iPhone with no headphone jack. Yet, there is undoubtedly a natural ebb and flow that occurs between industries, in the sense that when one sectors latest unveiling falls flat, another rises to the forefront, reminding us all that we are living smack dab in the middle of the technological revolution.

What’s Coming for Autonomous Technology

With that in mind, it would seem that 2017 is the automotive industry’s turn to grab the attention of consumers, as another wave of autonomous test vehicles will hit the road in the second half of the year. As competition among brands has increased, so has the pace at which autonomous vehicles are being prepared for live testing. BMW Group, Intel, and Mobileye formed a partnership in 2016, with the ultimate goal of releasing their first fully autonomous consumer vehicle, the BMW iNext in 2021. According to evertiq.com, in the time since announcing their partnership, the companies have developed “a scalable architecture that can be adopted by other automotive developers and carmakers to pursue state of the art designs and create differentiated brands.” BMW is just one of many companies with their eyes on the autonomous market. Ford has big plans for autonomous ridesharing and Tesla’s self-driving hardware is being installed in all new Tesla vehicles. Volvo already has self-driving vehicles on the road in Sweden and, later in the year, 100 real-world customers will be lucky enough to experience these autonomous vehicles in all their glory.

Implications of Driverless Cars

The implications of a fully autonomous consumer vehicle are truly staggering. Consider how much time you spend in your vehicle. The back and forth to work, grabbing groceries, getting the kids to soccer practice. Beyond that, think about how much time you’ve spent in your life trying to find a parking spot. Now consider the impact it will have when that time becomes useable. Your car is no longer an obligation to focus all attention towards the road ahead, but rather a mobile office. What you do with that time is now up to you. The idea creates what I can only describe as something similar to a domino effect. Now, those small chores or calls you need to make can be completed on the way home, rather than once you get there, opening up the time you have at home to be enjoyed doing something you actually want to.

I have to imagine that down the road when autonomous vehicles are more commonplace, and the human element is removed from driving, we will also see a sharp decline in road rage incidents. Or maybe our cars will handle the expletives for us? I have to assume that a vehicle capable of driving itself is more clever than I am, anyway, as I can barely walk down a flight of stairs.

Safety: How Safe is too Safe?

One of the stranger and more negative things to consider is how autonomous vehicles will affect the medical industry. One of the largest sources of organs for those that need replacements comes from organ donors that have passed away in crashes. When we reach a point that our vehicles are intuitive enough to ensure that an accident will never happen, it will mean a serious shortage in the amount of available organs to be used in operations. It’s one of the few tangentially related issues that presents a very bizarre moral dilemma for both consumers and automakers. When discussing this problem, another similar concern often presents itself. As we are in the early stages of testing autonomous vehicles, we are bound to hit a few bumps in the road. One such bump relates to what your vehicle would do in the event that there is no way to prevent an impending crash. Would the car take corrective measures to protect you, or to protect whoever (or whatever) is in the way? Could the vehicle determine what action would have the most significant impact or will it simply detect that there’s an issue and make a standard correction? There is no real answer, yet. For now, we’re guinea pigging it.

Trial and Error

As it stands currently, fully autonomous vehicles are a process of trial and error. The growing number of questions they present can only be answered in time. With the impending trials to come in the second half of 2017, we should begin to get an idea, or at least some indication of whether we should be preparing for a “Herby Fully Loaded”-style reality, or something more similar to Stephen King’s “Christine.”

Tesla Autopilot

Tesla Autopilot

What are your thoughts on driverless cars? Let us know in the comments below!

Darrek Olson
Darrek Olson

Darrek is an enthusiast driver who values the journey more than the destination. A self-proclaimed Miata fanboy, his obscure knowledge of cars sometimes prevents him from remembering what he had for breakfast.

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