It won’t happen immediately. But traffic engineers at the U.S. Department of Transportation are already studying the potential benefits of various vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems. Could cars that can “see” one another reduce the approximately 5.8 million crashes and 37,000 deaths that occur on American roads every year? Could they ease the congestion that sucks 4.2 billion hours out of American lives every year? Could they make better use of the 2.8 billion gallons of fuel that are wasted in traffic every year? Engineers working for a DOT program called Intelligent Transportation Systems (which has existed since 1991 but which, under a new mandate set forth in 2009, is specifically focused on vehicle “connectivity”) are drawing on information from the auto labs in Silicon Valley to figure out whether autonomy would solve more problems than it would create.
The answers are unclear. In the meantime, the secretary of the agency, Ray LaHood, has raised concerns about what may be a transition period, when drivers are confronted by more and more data stimuli yet don’t have the safety benefit of greater automotive autonomy. Last year, LaHood called the increase in auto fatalities as a result of distracted driving “a deadly epidemic,” a problem not unlike drunk driving. A University of Utah study suggests that the loss of acuity caused by using hands-free phones is equivalent to that of having a 0.08 blood-alcohol percentage. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died in crashes involving distracted driving. So far, legislatures in 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted full or partial bans on phone use in cars. “I’m on a rampage about this,” LaHood told the New York Times, “and I’m not going to let up.”
Eventually, though, if the Silicon Valley engineers have their way, the cars will pass through the valley of distraction and into the realm of total autonomy—and then distraction will be exactly what we seek as we while away the commute in our idiotproof pleasure domes. In Europe, one Mercedes-Benz model is already available with an in-dash browser that connects to the Internet via cellular networks. When the car is stationary, you can use Facebook. When you’re moving, you can search for a nearby hotel using Google Maps. Johann Jungwirth, who directs Mercedes’s own Silicon Valley outpost, says the Web has just begun invading the cockpit. Soon, social-networking applications will allow drivers to communicate with one another as if chatting online. Then comes augmented reality: information about the landscape ahead being projected into the driver’s field of vision, like an annotated windshield. The road itself could become another layer of entertainment.
Control is the key. Who has the wheel? And cars themselves, as Byron Shaw, the managing director of General Motors’s Advanced Technology Office told me will increasingly have an opinion on the matter.
The GM office, tucked between an Equinox gym and a Fry’s Electronics, is among the newest and smallest of the automaker outposts. Standing in a room with high ceilings, exposed wood beams and abundant skylights, Shaw explained how a car could become aware of a driver’s wishes, and of that driver’s fitness to express them.
Somewhere in the office, he said, was a headset made by a local company called NeuroSky, which measures brain waves using EKG sensors and may one day allow for control using only thoughts. “You can put that on and be Luke Skywalker,” Shaw said. “You can bring the X-wing fighter up out of the swamp.” Seriously? “Not quite yet. But kids today are going to grow up with that as their game interface.” Earlier this year, researchers at Free University Berlin demonstrated a thought-controlled Volkswagen Passat, which they modified to run on brain-activity-mapping devices built by the Bay Area company Emotiv.
That control can run two ways, though. “Say you had a bad argument with your boss and you’re not thinking about driving,” Shaw said. “That can be measured, in a sense,” and the car can be programmed to respond. I had heard similar ideas at both Mercedes and BMW—that cars will one day monitor our vital signs using biometric sensors in the seats, and if they detected, for example, an oncoming seizure, they would navigate out of traffic and call 911.
The EN-V may seem odd, but it makes sense in the context of a growing market for mobility. “A confluence of forces is changing things right now,” Shaw said. “Electrification, concerns about our carbon footprint and domestic security, the rapid pace of technology development, globalization. All of them are happening at the same time.” In developing economies, Shaw said, “you have masses of people who never had any experience with owning a car and don’t necessarily have a preconceived notion of what owning a car is supposed to be like.” Maybe, he continued, car ownership shifts toward a cellphone model, in which drivers would get a free or highly subsidized car and sign up for a fee plan that includes fuel or access to charging stations.
Standing in the garage, staring at crates containing prototype autonomous pod-cars and thinking about cell plans and interfaces, it became clear that Silicon Valley was doing a lot more than making cars smarter. It was doing for the auto industry what it had done for the computer industry a generation ago: transforming unfathomably complex machines into consumer objects that require almost no skill to operate. An old IBM mainframe would arrive with a shelf of thick manuals. An iPhone requires almost no instruction. Users can think less about what is under the hood and more about whatever it is they want to do, whether it’s sending a text or driving to the corner store. All they have to do is let go of the wheel.
Whether it’s wise to put this much trust into our cars is another question, one that might be best answered a few exits up Highway 101 at Google’s massive campus in Mountain View. In 2007, Google hired Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University artificial-intelligence researcher, to work on the company’s Street View program and then to lead its own autonomous car division. Google’s seven robotic cars (six Priuses and an Audi TT) have since logged more than 100,000 fully autonomous miles on California roads. In June, Google convinced the Nevada legislature to require the state DMV to write rules that permit the operation of autonomous cars. Thrun says robots are better drivers and that robot cars could cut the number of fatal traffic accidents (about 1.2 million per year worldwide) in half. That is the argument for giving up control. And it is true that in all the miles his cars have driven so far, there has been only a single accident—when a human-driven car rear-ended a robo-Prius at a light.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.