Driverless Robot Cars Are Coming

Technology will replace drivers - sooner than you think. The rise of the robot car is inevitable. It'll happen because most people who buy cars really don't enjoy driving; they'd rather be doing something else. Technology will facilitate it. In the foreseeable future, driving will lose its appeal and gradually do the dinosaur bit the way vinyl records did a few decades ago. Cars will still be with us; driving will be obsolete. Despite the nostalgia wrapped around driving, which you and I probably share, this trend towards driverlessness is a done deal – it’s as certain as iPods having killed CDs.
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Your new chauffer will probably be less malevolent and better looking than Arnie's intense alter-ego ... but just as cunning

All that remains is a timetable. Depending on your age, you might never own a fully robotic or ‘autonomous’ vehicle, but your kids probably will.

Right now – today – Nevada is being heavied to introduce legislation that will legalise driverless vehicles. Techno-giant, Google, is putting the bite on the state’s regulators to become the testbed for robotic vehicles, which, it claims, have already racked up more than 220,000 autonomous kilometres – albeit with a living, breathing person in the driver’s seat (essentially doing nothing, beyond sitting there to satisfy a latent legislative requirement).

Driver soon to become optional extra - in Nevada

In September last year we reported on the un-manned robotic Audi TT that climbed the infamous 15,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Although it did so not quite as speedily as a rally champion, at least it didn’t crash … like the human-piloted helicopter commissioned to film the event did, tragically and somewhat ironically injuring four.

This robotic Audi TT climbed Pikes Peak in 2010
Robot 1; humans nil - ironically, human pilot crashes trying to film robotic car's epic hillclimb

Every day, hundreds of technically cognizant propeller-heads go to work in un-signposted automotive skunkworks and build better mousetraps designed to make human drivers obsolete. I visited one such place outside Munich late last year – the private BMW test track in Aschheim. Here, a young engineer let go the controls and feigned a heart attack at 100km/h. The X5 ‘mule’ – bristling with laser scanners, cameras and radar, took over. Computers? You bet. The cargo space was completely filled with racks containing the automotive equivalent of NORAD-lite. Lots of flashing diodes – the kind of stuff only Jack Bauer could hope to disarm.

And it's not just Audi - when it's not designing frozen hurricanes, BMW is heavily invested in driverless tech

The X5 watched the road, identified the traffic, waited for a gap, indicated right (Euro-orientation of the slow lane), changed lanes, stabilised, and then repeated the process. Eventually it moved to, and stopped safely in, the breakdown lane. Then it activated the hazard lights and executed a computer program designed to send a priority SMS message to emergency services responders – complete with the GPS location.

Clever stuff. And, although not quite in production yet, this technology was far enough down the track, to let me in – joined at the umbilical to a prime-time TV crew. It begs the rather obvious question: How totally cool is the stuff they’re working on now, which they won’t yet oxygenate with publicity?

Tomorrow's chauffer will probably look like this

Flash-forward to vehicles you can buy now. Cutting-edge adaptive cruise control uses radar to follow slower traffic at a safe distance and will even brake right down to a stop if the vehicle in front does likewise. And, unlike humans, adaptive cruise never gets waylaid by a nice set of legs at the roadside, or the imperative to send a critical tweet, like, right now, in traffic.

Infrared cameras and computer algorithms in high-end cars today not only detect pedestrians (and, potentially, kangaroos, etc.) at night – but they also plot their likely trajectories and are capable of intervening if a collision course seems likely.

There are of course, milder consumer benefits to friendlier version of Skynet taking over, at least on the road. The rise of the machines might mean drink-driving will be a non-issue. With three schooners of ‘super’ on board, why not let the robot chauffer you home? You’ll be able to blog to your heart’s content (or work) all the way to and from the office, or just watch your favourite I Love Lucy re-runs.

Robot cars could remove some traditional road safety hurdles...

Sending the car to collect someone (kids from school; dad from the airport, etc.) previously a luxury afforded only the uber-wealthy, might soon be something everyone does. Perhaps this will render cabs – or at least cab drivers – obsolete. You might send the car on its own to the dealership for a scheduled service – and the dealership might send it back. Perhaps you’ll buy your car online and it will deliver itself.

If you can’t find a park, perhaps in the future you will be able to press the ‘round the block’ button and have the vehicle enter an autonomous holding pattern while you duck in for those last-minute wedding anniversary flowers to ensure your latent absent-mindedness doesn’t get you stabbed 40 or 50 times, quietly, in the night… And even if that’s not an issue, it might well be cheaper to have the car doing autonomous laps in lieu of paying Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane exhorbitant parking rates. (There will probably be a toll for this, however…)

Can't find a park? Send the robot 'round the block

Would engaging autopilot take the gloss off driving? Probably – at least to older farts like me. I’d be happy to let the robot do the work in heavy traffic, which, let’s face it, isn’t really driving. I’d still prefer to throw the car at a twisty backroad, however. But to middle-aged Gen Zs of the future, a steering wheel might be as relevant to modern life as CDs are to Gen Ys today. Will autonomous cars in the future come with an ‘autopilot off’ function (plus a steering wheel and pedals) or will these nostalgic implements one day be merely the stuff of museum exhibits, with contemporary conveyances featuring four-to-eight passenger’s seats and high-speed internet access?

Even the US Department of Defense mad scientist division, DARPA, is banking on robot cars

Will hackers construct viruses that cause robot cars literally to crash? Will the aftermarket industry make unauthorised firmware available – big can of worms there, potentially, on the liability front.

Too sad: robot cars might see this bloke and his mates go the way of the dinosaurs

Maybe we can expect some regulatory resistance to robot cars Down Under. What will all the state treasuries do for a quid when the immense revenue streams from drivers’ traffic infringements start to run dry? And, finally, who’s copping the lawsuit if the robot makes a blue and catalyses a 20-car pile-up on a motorway near you in peak hour?