The Case for Cars That Don’t Need Drivers

I seldom go out at night, not because I’m such a homebody (though I am) but because my night vision is poor, and I can’t drive after dark. That definitely puts a crimp in my social life. Someday I’ll have to give up driving altogether, as most older people do. With the car keys will go my independence.

That’s the main reason I’ve followed the development of driverless cars with avid interest. Experts expect automakers and other companies to spend billions over the next five to 10 years on the effort to develop cars that can (or almost can) drive themselves. And that “almost” represents a crucial difference, especially for those of us in upper age brackets.

The developers of tomorrow’s cars are currently moving in two directions. Silicon Valley giants like Google and Apple are working on vehicles designed to be completely self-driving (autonomous), while many of the world’s automakers are focusing on driver-assistance technology that doesn’t take over from the person behind the wheel—except in an emergency—but can be a great help.

Already cars are assuming more and more of the driving chores. Some turn on their own windshield wipers at the first drop of rain and switch on headlights at dusk. Many beep if you’re about to back into something or have a rearview camera that shows what’s behind you when you’re in reverse. All new cars will be required to have such cameras by 2018.

Meanwhile, high-tech, driver-assistance systems use radar and cameras to watch the road ahead. If they spot something hazardous—say, an obstacle of some kind—they warn you, and if you don’t react quickly enough, they put on the brakes for you. This is called an automatic emergency braking system (an AEB), and 10 major car makers have agreed to make it standard equipment on their new cars within the next few years. The 10 account for more than half of all car and light-truck sales in the United States.

There are also cars that let you know if you start to drift out of your lane, and others that compensate for blind spots: if you start to change lanes and there’s another vehicle where you can’t see it, they quickly take over and steer you safely back into your original lane. Prices for vehicles with some form of driver assistance, either standard or as an option, begin at about $27,000.

Auto companies are also paying attention to parking problems. Not only are there now cars that can park themselves, but in the future, you’ll be able to get out at the entrance of parking garages and your car will use its sensors to go find its own parking space. BMW demonstrated just such a system in early 2015.

Driver-assistance cars could gradually evolve into completely self-driving vehicles, but that’s not necessarily what their developers have in mind. Toyota, which is working with Stanford University and MIT on driver assistance, has explained that it doesn’t want to spoil the fun of driving—it just wants to make it safer. And there’s evidence that cars with AEBs have fewer accidents.

Meanwhile, Google, Apple, Uber and others want to take the driver right out of driving and do it now. Since 2009, Google’s autonomous SUVs have piloted themselves over almost two million miles of highways and city streets. There has always been someone behind the wheel, able to take over in an emergency, because state laws require it.

All that road testing has persuaded the company’s engineers that there are real problems with the human-automobile interface: when Google allowed 100 of its employees to take its self-driving SUVs home, the employees loved it, but on-board cameras revealed that, though they were supposed to be ready to react if necessary, many relaxed so completely that they couldn’t have seized control if something went wrong.

Consequently, Google has now developed a second, very small car quite different from its autonomous SUVs. This latest model (above) is a bubble-shaped two-seater not much bigger than a golf cart with a top speed of 25 miles per hour.

Although the bubble car has a steering wheel, and accelerator and brake pedals, they’re removable and will be taken out as soon as state laws no longer require a human driver. From that time on, passengers will get in, push a button to start the motor, tell the car where to go, and it will do the rest. Auto-industry experts suggest that the bubble car will be popular as a driverless taxi in city centers, around airports and on college or corporate campuses.

And within retirement communities and on suburban streets, I hope. I’m all for this truly autonomous car because it could completely change the lives of older people who can’t drive and so are stranded at home.

Some experts predict that fully self-driving cars will be in showrooms by 2020; others are dubious and note that a lot of problems will have to be solved first.

Probably, once completely autonomous cars do become available, they’ll share the streets with ordinary vehicles and those that merely assist their drivers. In a way, that’s too bad. Driving is fun, but if there were no humans behind the wheel, there would be far fewer accidents. Google’s cars have a constant, 360-degree view of the road and better reflexes than any human—and their software will never get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel or text while driving. In the summer of 2015, Google reported that, during six years of testing over millions of miles, its self-driving cars had only 16 accidents—all, minor. Human error was to blame every time, usually some other driver’s error as Google’s vehicles were rear-ended.

In this video, Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s driverless-cars project, explains that the least reliable part of the car has always been the driver. He suggests that the better the assistive technology gets, the less reliable drivers will be, and therefore autonomous cars will be much safer than those that merely assist the person behind the wheel.

Sebastian Thrun, PhD, one of the pioneers of Google’s autonomous-car initiative, believes future generations will look back and think how ridiculous it was that cars were ever driven by humans.

As for me, I’m imagining a future in which older people no longer have to give up their car keys because they’ve outlived their ability to drive. That day can’t come too soon for me.