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I remember being six years old driving with my dad, daydreaming about cars and what they may be like when I would be old enough to drive. I always was infatuated with cars and in my six-year-old brain, I was sure that by the time I was an adult, cars would have jet propulsion and wings that would let them fly everywhere to avoid the annoyance of traffic. I remember looking at my dad and asking him, “do you think cars will ever be able to drive themselves?” He looked back at me and said, “I don’t think in my lifetime, but if that happens, I would never trust that a self-driving car could be as safe as my driving.” Twenty years later, my question has been answered and my dad was wrong. Flying cars didn’t exactly happen the way I had imagined (though they are out there), but self -driving cars are going to be a very tangible reality for most of us within the next few years.
A major milestone was recently reached through a partnership between Audi and Delphi. A car that they have named “Roadrunner” completed a 3,400 mile journey across the United States from San Francisco to the New York Auto Show in nine days without any significant human intervention. The car was able to accomplish this by using Delphi’s various active safety systems. The car was equipped with six long-range radars, four short-range radars, three vision-based cameras, six lidars, and numerous software algorithms analyzed all of the information coming in through these devices.
The fact that a car was able to drive across the U.S. is an enormous accomplishment for both Audi and Delphi, but it’s also a milestone for the entire industry as it indicates a seismic shift in how consumers interact with automobiles. In a very short period of time, we may not be sitting behind the wheel of our cars, but in the back seat writing emails and sipping a latte while the car guides us through traffic.
Delphi may have gotten the most publicity through their Audi partnership, but there are a number of other players who are also making a significant impact on the industry. Established companies like TRW, Bosch, Denso, and Valeo are joined by newcomers like Mobileye and Velodyne in creating various types of active safety systems. The active safety industry is projected to grow by 50% year over year for the next three years as auto manufacturers embrace this technology and as costs decline.
As the technology becomes cheaper, cars will increasingly be available with multiple active safety systems; this means that driving will inevitably become safer. Some car manufacturers are aiming to have zero fatalities in any of their vehicles worldwide by the year 2020. They believe that with advances in technology, their cars will be intelligent enough to prevent most crashes themselves.
Humans have had an obsessive enchantment with the automobile over the past century. Many people feel a genuine attachment to their vehicles and will argue that the technology controlling self-driving cars are not as capable as human beings at making quick decisions. It will quickly become evident that this argument does not hold truth, especially since as a society we are increasingly becoming engaged with the constant distractions coming through our wearable devices and smartphones. I predict that in the very near future – maybe within fifteen years – governments will deem people unfit to drive and a fleet of autonomous vehicles will ferry us wherever we need to go with a much lower rate of accidents. If you’ve seen the movie Minority Report, the self-driving cars in that movie seemed impossible at the time, but they may not be as far from reality as they were when the movie was released in 2002. A news story that validates the legitimacy of this certainty is that Mercedes recently announced that they plan to have a fully autonomous vehicle for sale by 2025.
The automotive world remained a steady place to operate throughout the past seventy-or-so years. Mergers occurred, there were some major advancements in passive safety, and we saw brands like Pontiac and Oldsmobile disappear into obsolescence, but through it all, companies were still creating a product where a human sat on a seat and used a wheel to maneuver the vehicle. When I said that a seismic shift was coming, I meant it. This is going to be the first time that a machine will freely move humans around and we will begin interacting with cars more like we do with trains. Like it or not, you may question whether you are driving the next car your purchase or if it is driving you.