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The Cars of Tomorrow

I’d like to interrupt the recent stream of political posts for a moment to geek over the prospects of robotic automobiles. Well, not quite; there will be a bit of political grumbling before the end, and there are a few mixed feelings about the technology. But first–the robots!

DETROIT, April 3 — The modern car does not have to guess your weight. It already knows.

It watches how you drive and it can pull a Trump. Skid, and before you can blink, you’re fired — the car is driving for you, if only for a moment. Cars today can decide when to brake, steer and can park themselves. They can even see.

In short, the back-seat driver now lives under the hood. And it does more than just talk.

This is all technology on the road now, if not in a single country or car. But industry engineers and executives view it as the start of a trend that will play out over the next decade, in which automobiles become increasingly in touch with their surroundings and able to act autonomously.

Diminishing returns from air bags and other devices that help people survive crashes have led to a wave of new technology to help avoid accidents. Or, if an on-board microprocessor judges a collision to be inevitable, the car puts itself into a defensive crouch. Mercedes S-Class sedans will even start shutting the sunroof and lifting reclined seats if a collision is deemed likely.

This trend is made possible by the car’s evolution from a mechanical device to an increasingly computerized one, in which electronic impulses replace or augment moving parts. That means microprocessors can take control of the most basic driving functions, like steering and braking.

At the same time, there is a parallel evolution in sensory technology. Most advanced safety systems are equipped with sensors that look inside the car, tracking tire rotation, brake pressure and how rapidly a driver is turning the steering wheel.

Japanese automakers have pushed the boundaries of these technologies farthest in their home market, a society with an affinity for gadgetry. Toyota recently introduced a car that parks itself.

I love gadgets. And while I like having a car available, I hate the routine unpleasantness that goes along with driving most places you need to get. A self-parking car is just so tomorrow–and so nice a solution to one of the more routine frustrations of driving, that it will leave my geeky soul all a-glow for weeks.

I do have to confess, though, that the glow wears off a little when I think about it more. Sure, I’m all for intelligent machines–and robots, no less! And sure, I think that increased road safety is all for the best. But–as Thomas Landauer pointed out back in 1996 in The Trouble With Computers–all too often we end up wasting a lot of productive energy by investing it in sophisticated technological solutions to problems that were created by the inappropriate application of technology in the first place. Landauer discusses this in the context of uncritical transfer of tasks to the computer; but it’s no less true of transportation.

Think of it this way: the reason that people are working on sophisticated robo-cars is because when you have millions of people individually driving cars on crowded streets at high speeds, it makes it all too likely that a lot of people will crash into each other and get killed. One way to do this is to pour a lot of technological effort into making the cars more aware of their surroundings and able to automatically take actions that will reduce the likelihood of a crash, and reduce the damage if one occurs.

Another way to get cars to carry a lot of people without running into each other is to tie a bunch of them together, move them as a unit, and call it a train.

But trains have floundered over the past century while automobiles have flourished. Why? Well, not because stressful, dangerous, polluting, rage-inducing car commutes are really how the average person wants to get from place to place; it has a lot more to do with the fact that the various levels of government in the United States have effectively forced us to adopt automobiles as our method of mass transit through creating a cartelized financial disaster-area in the train industry, and by pouring billions of dollars every year into subsidies for creating and maintaining free highways.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish I had the resources to get myself one of those self-parking cars. I think a future filled with robo-mobiles is one I’d like to live in. But I also appreciate a simple solution to what ought to be a simple problem. So two cheers for robo-cars, and one boo held back for the Interstate Highway System.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled jeremiads against the Bush Administration.

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