It’s hard to get excited about driverless cars. Some auto executives wince at the prospect of designing cars for people who aren’t going to drive them. But others, even noted car guys such as Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors, say it’d be wrong to dismiss them out of hand. Automated cars, if not the wave of the future, may be an important part of the mix of vehicles in the market for two reasons: demographics, and traffic congestion.
Given the choice, would people prefer to sit back, read their paper and email messages, or drive bumper-to-bumper on the same daily route for 45 minutes? Driverless cars might also be an answer for disabled people who can’t work the pedals, for instance.
The world’s big automakers are all studying this trend seriously — as are enterprising outsiders, such as Google, which demonstrated a driverless car at an automotive engineers’ conference last week in Detroit. GM is developing “Super Cruise” autonomous driving technology that will be available in Cadillac models as early as 2015.
Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Co. are also working on driverless-car technology, their executives say. “We believe there’ll be a real need for that in the future,” says Jim Lentz, chief executive officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA. “If you look at the aging population in the U.S. and the aging population in Japan, even more so than the U.S., it’s another way to provide freedom of transportation to people who may not have the ability to drive.”
At the other end of the spectrum, in a trend that first emerged in Japan about a decade ago and is now appearing in the U.S., young people seem less interested in cars and in the whole driving experience than their parents. They’re more interested in inter-active technology that allows them to stay connected. A survey by IT research firm Gartner in Stamford, Conn., found that 46 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over a car, compared with 15 percent of Baby Boomers who’d make that choice.
Automakers are trying to entice young consumers by piling web-based connective gadgetry into their cars. Toyota showed a concept car at the Tokyo show last year, the fun-vii, which even looks like a smartphone on wheels.
But the proliferation of interactive systems can’t go much further in today’s cars. Even voice-activated, hands-free systems prompt concerns about distracted driving. Under new rules from the U.S. Transportation Department, some of these systems would have to be shut down when the car’s in motion so that the driver can focus on the road ahead.
Regulating automated or driverless cars raises a host of liability and safety issues that need to be resolved. But the technology itself already exists, BMW sales chief Ian Robertson said at the New York auto show. “A lot of that is already in the car.” It’s in the sophisticated driver-assist systems offered in premium cars, which can sound an alarm or even start the braking process if they sense (from sensors) that the car’s approaching an obstacle and the driver isn’t responding.
It may be that driverless cars, though vastly more complex than the roadsters that symbolized freedom and spontaneity for generations of drivers, will provide similar opportunities. “Imagine,” Lentz said, “how that changes the world for people who may be blind.” Or disabled, or just older in graying societies, but eager to retain their mobility. The driver may be supplanted by the technology, but not necessarily the person.