Its been a futurist fever dream since at least 1939, when visitors to the General Motors pavilion at the New York Worlds Fair marveled at a glimpse of the automotive future: a miniaturized model of a city prowled by 50,000 robot cars, controlled not by human drivers but centralized radio waves.
That future may have been delayed a bit (the GM pavilion boldly predicted that humans would be out from behind the steering wheel by 1960) but its no longer a utopian daydream or pulpish science fiction: Several car companies say theyll begin selling vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time by the end of this decade. And Florida will be right there at Ground Zero of the automotive revolution.
We want to be the state thats ready for innovation, says Ananth Prasad, Floridas transportation secretary. We want to be the state where entrepreneurs and great minds can come to try things, rather than the state that just says no.
One of just four states that permit experimental driverless vehicles to be driven on public roads, Florida has been the site of tests to see how their crash-averting sensors react to sudden and vicious thunderstorms. A section of Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa has already been equipped with transponders that feed the cars information about traffic and road conditions.
And when auto manufacturers and government officials from around the country held a summit last year to hammer out some of the legal and technological issues surrounding the vehicles, they chose Tampa to host it.
During a car show accompanying the summit, Prasad such an enthusiastic booster of the concept that he sits on the board of the national industry group Intelligent Transportation Society of America took one of the prototypes out for a spin. Or, maybe, it took him.
It felt a little odd, sitting there with my hands away from the wheel, on an Interstate with people going by me at 70 miles an hour, he recalls. But it wasnt scary or intimidating. Of course, obviously I was in a car full of Google engineers if anything went wrong.
Google, the Internet company that has been testing luxuriant Priuses and Lexuses festooned with radar, lasers, and video cameras that allow the vehicles to be driven by its software rather than humans, says it expects its autonomous driving system to be on the road by 2018.
Several car manufacturers are only slightly less optimistic. Nissan, Mercedes and Renault have all announced plans to market cars in 2020 that can drive themselves at least part of the time.
A lot of people question whether were going to see this in our lifetime, says Prasad. I think theyre going to be very, very surprised.... Autonomous vehicles are much, much closer than we think.
In fact, theyre already here kind of. Several of the key technologies in creating a full-blown driverless car have already been deployed. Some Mercedes-Benz models sold in Europe can be put on auto-pilot in low-speed traffic jams; taking cues from the vehicles ahead of them, they stop or go, speed up or slow down as traffic permits, while keeping themselves inside the lane.
Volvo equips some cars with a pedestrian protection system that hits the brakes hard if the cars radar spots a person in the street ahead. Even the lowly Ford Focus has a parallel-parking-assistance option that does all the maneuvering while the driver controls the accelerator and brakes and looks out for fire hydrants or no-parking signs.
Automated driving, in a certain degree, already exists today, says Joachim Taiber, director of the International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University. You can already buy cars with collision avoidance systems, emergency braking system, lane-departure warnings.
Thats how were going to arrive at what people most likely mean when they say driverless car a robot vehicle with nobody behind the wheel that functions on all roads under all conditions. Thats not within reach in 10 years or probably even 20. Instead, were going to move toward that in phases, and actually, weve already started.
The prospect of a truly and totally driverless world like the one to which Taiber refers can excite normally sobersided engineers into flights of both transcendental fancy and apocalyptic morbidity.
Surely many of the 31,000 Americans who die in traffic accidents each year would be saved if human drivers and their unfortunate tendencies to drink beer, text, apply makeup and race trains were taken out from behind the wheel not to mention the elimination of things like fog-bound pileups and collisions due to rearview-mirror blind spots.
That death toll its like having an airliner crash every day of the year! says Paul Feenstra, senior vice president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. If that were to happen, wed have congressional hearings every day to get to the bottom of it. But its become an acceptable norm on the nations highways, and it doesnt have to be.
The quixotic dreams of urban planners for vast tracts of parkland and bike paths and playgrounds might actually become affordable if cities could get rid of all their parking lots. And, maybe, they could.
You probably dont need parking garages any more once you have driverless cars, says Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas. Youd just call an automous taxi to pick you up in the morning and return you in ther afternoon. Somewhere from 20 to 80 percent of urban land area could be repurposed.
Some theorists believe the entire foundation of private car ownership will be shattered. Theres a lot of talk about people joining fleets or clubs, like Netflix for cars, where youd just order one up when you needed it, says Loren Smith, an analyst who follows government automotive policy for the research firm Capital Alpha. You wouldnt have a car sitting the driveway for 23 hours a day, doing nothing.
The productivity, and possibly the space-alien-zapping skills, of American workers would zoom through the roof as commute times traffic jams would be a thing of the past as computers mass driverless cars into perfectly spaced convoys traveling at uniform speeds and workers can spend the time working on their laptops instead of trying to cut in front of the guy in the next lane.
Especially in the information technology industry, a lot of people think of driving as a big waste of time, says Clemsons Taiber. If you work on emails or reports, or play video games, or even just sleep, a lot of people would welcome that.
The lame will walk and the blind see. Well, almost, anyway. Google thrilled the industry a couple of years ago with a video of a blind man in the drivers seat of one of its automated cars as it carried him to first a fast-food restaurant and then to pick up his dry cleaning. Driverless cars promise new independence to the disabled and not inconsequential in a country where the massive Baby Boom generation is passing into retirement senior citizens whose driving skills have waned.
But driverless cars might also ruin the environment, worsen global warming and lay waste to our cities. Once I can relax in my car on the way to work, read a book or watch a video, travel time wont be a burden to me anymore, notes Texas Bhat. I might move further away, travel longer disances to work. That could expand the geographical footprint of our cities and increase our use of fossil fuels and massively increase pollution. Its practically invited urban sprawl.
We might even hear a giant, strangled glug-glug-glug as the American housing industry goes even deeper underwater. If you dont have to drive your car, youll want to have more fun in it, be able to move around and put bigger seats maybe even a sofa in it, adds Bhat. Vehicles will get bigger and bigger. In an extreme case, would we even have homes anymore? Or just huge vehicles that become our giant mobile homes?
All those scenarios, however, whether utopian or dystopian, probably lie well over the horizon. Not because the technology for truly driverless cars doesnt exist most of it is ready to go or soon will be but because the road to that horizon is filled with legal, political and social potholes, some of them pretty deep.
One of the biggest: liability law. No matter how good the technology is, there are going to be accidents, especially if you have a mix of human drivers and robots, which will be the situation for decades as the new cars penetrate the market. It can be something as simple as a tire blowout, or as complicated as a power surge that knocks out some of the technology while the human driver is asleep and cant take over.
So is the human driver the car owner responsible? The car manufacturer? The technology supplier? How do you apportion that out? Lawyers and insurance companies are going to be watching very carefully, and even though we have some models to work with aircraft accidents that occur while the plane is on auto-pilot is a good one it will be long and time-consuming.
Technology failures might not be just legally complicated, but terrifying: What if a virus or a hacker invaded the software of vehicles and sent them reeling out of control? What if terrorists start using driverless cars to deliver suicide bombs that dont require suicides?
Infrastructure is another problem that may take years to overcome. Nobody has even ventured a guess as to how much it will cost to embed Americas 8 million lane-miles of roadways with the network of transponders and sensors necessary to relay road and weather conditions to vehicles.
And the other critical communications link in driverless technology vehicle-to-vehicle, which lets cars tell each other what theyre doing so they wont collide may be headed for political difficulties. It requires a big chunk of broadband, which the FCC set aside for carmakers in 1991.
But the proliferation of smart phones and video devices that stream movies and other video has gobbled up much of the broadband spectrum, and now the big cable companies have banded together to lobby Congress to let them share in the part reserved for autos. If the devices used by cable companies cause interfence with the cars nobody really knows the answer to that yet that could lead to disaster.
A dropped call on a cell phone caused by interference is no big deal, says Taiber. But the loss of even a little data on a cars collision-avoidance system could be fatal.
Privacy issues associated with driverless cars probably wont kill anybody, but they may prove nettlesome. The technology in a driverless car will record exactly where its been and when, information that the owner might not want to have available to a nosy government agency or a truculent divorce lawyer.
Then there are potential corporate commercial clashes with privacy, too. What if Google, which knows you have a weakness for Big Macs because of information it has collected from your web browsing, strikes a deal and instead of mapping your driverless car on the shortest route to the office sends it to one that takes it past a McDonalds?
The privacy people are going to go crazy when they figure out all the implications of this stuff, flatly predicts Robert Poole, editor of the industry newsletter Surface Transportation Innovations. Its massive data collection, the GPS big-brother-box-in-the-car.
Poole, though a fervent supporter of driverless-car technology, thinks theres a lot of mindless optimism among its backers. He believes its adoption will take much longer than anyone expects and fall considerably short of the complete overhaul of human society that they hope for.
You just arent going to see blind people traveling alone in these cars on freeways, or traffic jams disappear, or cities completely reengineer themselves, he says. As strong a technology as it is, things break and stuff goes wrong, and there will always have to be a human driver sitting there, ready to take control.