The Dawning Age of the Auto-Auto

The greatest hope for the aged American auto industry could be the end of the automobile — the automobile as we know it, that is.

This week, Detroit took a step forward into the era of the driverless car, as Toyota and several other companies launched a $10 million testing ground for self-driving vehicles at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, near Detroit.

It is not the first of its kind, either in the U.S. or the world; it’s just another milestone on the way to a revolution in private transportation. Already, development centers are operating in California and Texas, as well as Japan, Sweden and China.

The idea is well beyond the laboratory stage. The technology at Ann Arbor is expected to hit the road in about a year’s time, when Cadillacs will be equipped with transmitters capable of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. The federal government is behind it too, as the Transportation Department has recognized its potential to improve safety.

Some test vehicles are already on the road, and the results so far have been impressive, to say the least. In over six years of testing self-driving cars in a million miles of real-world conditions, Google, a leading innovator in the field, has reported 11 minor accidents and no serious injuries. That’s minuscule.

Furthermore, the company claims that none of the accidents were caused by the self-driving cars themselves.  If we can eliminate human drivers, the company claims, we can scale down dramatically the number of road deaths — some 33,000 people in the U.S. alone each year.

Human error accounts for more than 90 percent of all motor vehicle accidents. Alcohol plays a role in more than one in three traffic-related fatalities. Drunk driving will eventually vanish as a road killer, as fewer and fewer people are actually doing the driving.

The futurists are touting other advantages as well to the fully auto-automobile. Not only will their sensors enable rapid braking and accelerating to avoid accidents, autonomous vehicles will be able, through information-sharing, to navigate around congestion. Congestion itself will be a leftover from the dark ages of cars with drivers. Their ability to travel at speed with less distance between them can potentially increase freeway capacity by six or eight times.

It’s even been suggested that the safety value of driverless cars will be so great that the public will demand that conventional driving be outlawed.

Though any such considerations are pure speculation, that notion is very far-fetched.

Granted, once upon a time horses were the main means of transportation; and when horsepower under the hood proved its superiority, horses were gradually sidelined. You can still own and ride a horse, though mostly for recreational activities in specially set-aside venues. Much the same, some predict, will happen to old-style autos. They will gradually be displaced by auto — autos that drive themselves, simply because the product advantages will be so obvious.

The key difference of course is that whether on the back of a horse or behind the wheel of a car, humans continued to think they were in control. Will mankind — already hopelessly addicted to smartphones and other high-tech gadgetry — agree to renounce control over their cars?

Only time will tell.

As Torah Jews, we hope and pray that Moshiach will be here long before the era of driverless cars for all arrives. In any case, the transformation will not take place overnight. Even assuming all goes well — and much can still happen to put the brakes on the whole concept — industry sources say that it could take 20 years to build a new fleet of vehicles that could effectively replace what’s on the road now.

In the meantime, various technical and legal obstacles remain. For example, in testing it’s been found that accidents occur when conventional drivers encounter driverless cars on the road next to them. They’re confused by them, and that leads to collisions. As the new technology hits the road, there may well be an initial period of increased accidents, which will be discouraging.

More frightening is the vulnerability to hacking. Terrorists, criminals and pranksters could hack private systems to wreak havoc.

Then there is the question of insurance. Because driver error is the most common cause of accidents, liability has historically been oriented toward individuals. In driverless cars, when everybody’s a passenger, accountability becomes a new imponderable.

To be sure, as good as it looks, this autotopia should be approached with caution. Technology has solved all our problems many times before — only to create new ones in their place, often far worse than the old ones.

The very impressiveness of the claims being made for driverless cars should put us on our guard. Detroit’s eagerness for the new technology is understandable, and perhaps warranted. But before they sell us a whole new way of gearing up anytime to go anywhere, let’s make sure we kick the tires and take a good long look under the hood.