CNN 10 Ideas: Self-Driving Cars

I get quoted by Todd Leopold of CNN for one of their  10 Ideas: Self-Driving Cars

Illustration by Stewart Scott-Curran, CNN
Illustration by Stewart Scott-Curran, CNN

Yes, flying cars and portable jetpacks are still, for the most part, the province of science fiction.

But another popular sci-fi idea, self-driving transportation, is rapidly becoming reality.

It’s no secret that Google has been working steadily on an automated car for years. Indeed, it’s even testing a few models on the streets of California.

But, more quietly, both auto manufacturers and government entities are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Automakers are already equipping cars with sensors that know, for example, when you’re about to plow into the car in front of you and can brake accordingly. David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who writes the Transportationist blog, believes partially automated cars could be hitting the market by the end of the decade.

“My guess is that there will be some stuff on the market by 2020 that will be automated in that you could probably do hands-off driving on freeways in specific situations,” he says.

However, he quickly cautions, that prediction comes with a number of caveats. Automakers are concerned about liability – after all, who’s at fault if an automated car gets in an accident? There’s also the matter of equipping roadways and signage with helpful technology, something car manufacturers don’t expect in the short term. (Let’s face it: It’s hard enough to get potholes fixed.)

Finally, self-driving cars will likely take a generation to reach critical mass, says Levinson. Just as electrics and hybrids are only now becoming part of the everyday fleet, expect the number of automated vehicles to grow slowly in their early years, while people get rid of their previous vehicles.

Nevertheless, they could provide a huge benefit to society. Delivery services such as FedEx and UPS could automate their vehicles. Urban dwellers, who already use services such as Uber and Zipcar, would have more options to get around. And self-driving cars would be safer, thanks to the kinds of sensors that are becoming widespread today, such as auto-braking and blind-spot recognition.

Of course, such advances take both political and financial will. Technology already exists to automate aspects of rail; systems in Europe and Asia (such as Japan’s bullet trains) are run by machine. Congress even passed a 2008 law pushing for the installation of positive train control (PTC), a technology that helps recognize dangerous conditions, but U.S. systems have been slow to implement it.

Such a system could prevent deadly railway crashes that appear to have been caused by human error, such as a July high-speed derailment in Spain that killed 79 people and the crash of a commuter train this month in New York City.

“We should be doing more automation,” says Levinson. “It’s a lot easier to automate rail systems that it is to automate cars and highways.”

But, gradually, we’re getting there, he says. Throw in other innovations – 3-D printing, which could eliminate the need to have certain items shipped; telecommuting, which is already creating “virtual offices”; and alternate energy sources, which may reduce dependency on fossil fuels – and 20th-century transportation styles may finally end up in the rear-view mirror.