It’s been a futurist fever dream since at least 1939, when visitors to the General Motors pavilion at the New York World’s 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 it’s no longer a utopian daydream or science fiction. Several car companies say they’ll 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 that’s ready for innovation,” said Ananth Prasad, Florida’s 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, Fla., 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 wasn’t 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 we’re going to see this in our lifetime,” Prasad said. “I think they’re going to be very, very surprised. … Autonomous vehicles are much, much closer than we think.”
In fact, they’re 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 car’s radar spots a person in the street ahead. Even the 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, [to] a certain degree, already exists today,” said Joachim Taiber, director of the International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University. “You can already buy cars with collision avoidance systems, emergency braking systems, lane-departure warnings.
“That’s how we’re 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. That’s not within reach in 10 years, or probably even 20. Instead, we’re going to move toward that in phases, and actually, we’ve already started.”
The prospect of a truly and totally driverless world, like the one to which Taiber refers, can excite normally- sober 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, 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 – it’s like having an airliner crash every day of the year,” said Paul Feenstra, senior vice president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “If that were to happen, we’d have congressional hearings every day to get to the bottom of it. But it’s become an acceptable norm on the nation’s highways, and it doesn’t 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 don’t need parking garages any more, once you have driverless cars,” said Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas. “You’d just call an autonomous taxi to pick you up in the morning and return you in the 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. “There’s a lot of talk about people joining fleets or clubs, where you’d just order one up when you needed it,” said Loren Smith, an analyst who follows government automotive policy for the research firm Capital Alpha. “You wouldn’t 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. Traffic jams would be a thing of the past, as computers massed driverless cars into perfectly spaced convoys, traveling at uniform speeds – and workers could 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,” said Clemson’s Taiber. “If you work on emails or reports, or play games, or even just sleep, a lot of people would welcome that.”