The pursuit of a vision, such as a driver-free car, has invaluable benefits.
Technology development has been on a tear in the global automotive sector, an industry that could be leading all others in the development of sophisticated electronics. Event after event, the globe has been laser-focused on developments, trials and efforts underway in transportation to make this newly developed technology robust and ruggedized to operate – safely – in the varied and harsh environments automobiles operate. Virtually every system has been redesigned, with electronics and electronic sensors displacing electromechanical and mechanical components. The automobile of today is safer, quicker and more fuel-efficient than was imaginable even a decade back.
In the auto’s transition from a “hunk of bolts” to “elegant high-tech machine,” no aspect has sparked the imagination of engineers, or the greed of investors, more than the development and commercialization of the autonomous vehicle. On one level, I am amazed we are on the verge of harnessing an array of technology that could more safely transport people and cargo than a skilled, experienced driver. But on a different level, I am highly skeptical of the commercial viability of autonomous vehicles. This skepticism is rooted in a simple question: Who really wants an autonomous vehicle?
A few years ago I began seeing what I will call driverless cars on the highways around Boston. They were all high-end vehicles, such as Mercedes and BMWs, and bore signage that clearly marked them as test vehicles of “driverless technologies.” The driver would sit in the passenger seat, monitoring various controls as the vehicle worked its way through the prevailing traffic conditions. That’s when I began to ask, “Can you imagine ever wanting to use an autonomous vehicle?”
Responses varied significantly in rationale, but regardless of the respondent’s age or geography, the response was a unanimous “no!”
Baby boomers like me all said no because they enjoy driving. If anything, some wish their cars came with less technology, to make the driving experience more “pure fun,” as it was when cars were less sophisticated and required more operator skill. Their responses, I suspect, were influenced by the era in which they came of age, when freedom meant getting a driver’s license, and while cars generally lacked creature comforts like air conditioning, the act of zooming around with windows down gave the driver (and passengers) a heightened sense of speed and indulgence.
Millennials, like my children and their friends, when asked if they wanted an autonomous vehicle, also responded with a resounding “no!” Their reasoning, however, was quite different. I suspect it was influenced by having grown up in a time when new electronic devices – computers, audio, phones, etc. – were being introduced at breakneck speed, each new device seemingly lightyears ahead of the one it replaced. The millennials I asked were afraid the technology’s operating software would either “miss an upgrade” or be hacked. As one of them succinctly said, “I would feel safer with a drunk Uber driver than worrying my vehicle was on an outdated or unsupported operating system.”
The responses from those in the demographic between millennials and boomers reflect similar concerns. Some like driving, others don’t trust technology, and still others just don’t see the benefits. I have asked, “Do you want an autonomous vehicle?” all over the world. To this day, I have not met one person who has said yes. The Brookings Institution published similar findings in a July 2018 survey of Americans. Only 21% were even willing to ride in a computer-operated car. The closest to an affirmative response I found was from someone who acknowledged it might work in a truck or other vehicle that drives only on a highway, and then only temporarily so the driver would not need to stop for sleep.
Why is so much buzz, not to mention R&D efforts and resources, being plowed into commercializing a product it appears few want? I think it boils down to two basic reasons: imagination and technology.
Imagination is the age-old pursuit of attempting to do something considered by most as impossible. Building a machine that can fly, and then flying a machine nonstop across an ocean, and then around the world. Going into space. Landing on the moon. We mortals do things often not because it is logical but because it appears to be impossible. Have a vision and make it happen!
Technology and the collateral ways in which it can be deployed is the more pragmatic reason. The auto industry has for years displayed concept cars, showing what could be. Most often, some aspect of those concepts finds its way into everyday products. The same could be said about the technology necessary to develop an autonomous vehicle. While somewhere between zero and 21% of us may want to ride in an autonomous car, we all want the safety sensors and other technologies that help us drive more safely and more economically.
We all benefit from the plethora of technologies that have been, and will be, developed and refined for autonomous automobiles to exist. Even non-automotive applications will benefit. That is the part of the autonomous automobile story that is missed. Yet, in the end, that part may prove more exciting and profitable for all.