An early version of Google's prototype self-driving car (AP Photo/Google)

Despite some bad things that happen in our planet (e.g. worldwide terrorism, weapons of mass destruction easily reached by dictators), if there’s something that makes me really positively thrilled about the near future, this thing is autonomous cars.

I’m writing this blog post now, September 2016, and I’m actually looking forward to read it back in the not-too-far future, say 10 to 15 years from now.

Old men

You know how, when you were a kid, your parents told you (depends on your age – I’m not taking any assumptions. almost):

“When I was at your age, we didn’t even have color TV” or

“We didn’t have Internet and had to go to the library and open an encyclopedia to learn things” or

“We connected to other computers via a 14400 bit modem, downloaded some very small files or did some basic chatting, hoping that the line won’t drop out” or

“people couldn’t call/text each other when they scheduled to meet somewhere, they had to just show up and hope that the other person would be there too”

Young men

My kids are now 12 and 9 years old. I know that they’ll tell their children:

“When I was at your age, people actually drove their cars themselves. Manually! They steered the wheel, they had to look for pedestrians, other cars, hazards. Do you know how many people were killed due to human errors, drunk drivers, people falling asleep or using their phone while driving?”

And

“Since people had to drive their cars, a car would have had to be parked somewhere most of the day – for the whole time its owner did other things like sleep or work. Oh, and you usually owned a car because you wanted it there exactly when you need it right?”

Truth is, I suspect this conversation will happen much earlier than the time my kids will have their own kids to talk to about that.

Why are autonomous cars imminent and inevitable

Here are some basic facts:

  1. Humans make mistakes
  2. Computers (programmed correctly!) usually don’t.
  3. Driving is a somewhat systematic task; yes, there are many variations in reality while driving but the reactions to them can all be programmed so a computer can react in an appropriate way.
  4. Computer software, including AI, Machine Learning & Computer Vision got really really good and keeps improving in a fast pace.

Google started experimenting self-driving cars a few years ago; Tesla steadily captures real life data from real drivers of its cars to feed its Machine Learning process, so that near-future over-the-air software updates to its cars will have fully autonomous driving capabilities, and it’s all still undergoing some Research and Development, but then just last week Singapore-based nuTonomy started operating self-driving taxis, for real – so self-driving cars are actually starting to become reality.

Then we’re also talking about autonomous buses and trucks, Volvo says it will launch a fully unsupervised autonomous car by 2020, Tesla already offers an autopilot that keeps improving, and yeah – the system is still not 100% trustable but their autonomous test cars already make less accidents than humans.

Prediction

Now, there are some interesting social and legal issues with autonomous cars, but society and lawmakers will definitely sort it out, since it has to work so people will figure out and solve the technicalities. It’s just a necessity: if software can make less errors than humans, lives are saved. If software can drive a car, you don’t need to park it – just summon it from wherever it is, and it will come. If a car can be wherever when you sleep / work / play / whatever – then you can rent it out per hour. If cars are rented out – far less people will need to actually own a car.

What’s interesting is what will happen to the car market and the industry as a whole:

  • Will indeed less people own cars and just rent them out? Will cars cease to be owned by private people and we’ll end up having autonomous car fleets to run it?
  • Who would you sue for injuries and property damage due to an accident:
    • as a pedestrian (and what if you had a highly contributing factor to the accident and the car didn’t have a chance to maneuver its way out to avoid a collision?)
    • as a passenger in an autonomous car
    • as a passenger in car being hit by an autonomous car (and then whose fault is it? Would you look at car data logs? Can the logs be forged?)
  • How fast, and what challenges, will the autonomous cars industry face in certain countries where road traffic law is just a recommendation, or that drivers “figure out” what to do instinctively, against conventional rules and logic?

Also, driving is not going to completely go away soon; 4 wheel driving, racing cars, limousines, tourists’ trips – they will all still have their place for some more time. But some of them are going to drastically decrease.

What’s pretty sure (again, I’ll re-read this in 10-15 years time to see how far I was from reality) is that it’s a whole new era. It’s like life before and after the Internet, just that the Internet revolutionized access to information and speed of communication, and autonomous cars will:

  • almost completely cease motor vehicle deaths and injuries;
  • cut metro congestions, since more people will utilise a single car and since autonomous cars can drive with much less spacing between them, will accelerate and brake in a much more efficient way, preventing a traffic wave;
  • Dramatically decrease the need for parking spaces, as cars will drop people off and drive to the next passenger who needs them.

Summary

Indeed, it’s a very bright future. It’s not science fiction. It’s here and it’s coming in a very fast pace. I think that the future me, reading it back in 15 years, will laugh at how short-sighted I was.

The post’s picture (an early version of Google’s prototype self-driving car (AP Photo/Google)) is a modified version of a picture courtesy of smoothgroover22 and is under the CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

What do you think? How do you predict the future of autonomous cars will look like? What are the obstacles you see? Am I too conservative mentioning a 10-15 years schedule?

Autonomous Cars: A Letter to My Future Self
  • lili

    “Humans make mistakes

    Computers (programmed correctly!) usually don’t.”

    Err.. No. Sofware “make” a lot of mistakes, it’s called bugs.
    (via their humans, of course)

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