This past year I leased a new car, and it has all of the gadgets, sensors, widgets, "whatchamacallits" and "doohickeys" you see on the commercials. I'm certain this thing has millions of lines of code piping through it at light speed when I turn the ignition ... WAIT! I just forgot ... I don't turn a key anymore, I now push a button. When I shift the car into drive ... WAIT! I just forgot ... I don't shift anymore, I now push a button. In fact, while it’s moving, this vehicle is monitoring everything from the outside temperature, to my seating posture, to a 360-degree picture of where it is in relation to other cars on the road and the road itself. I'm amazed at the advances in vehicle technology in the past five years and a bit frightful of the ones coming in the next five years.
I recently watched the 60 Minutes expose on self-driving cars, where they interviewed the heads of automotive self-driving car development from Mercedes-Benz and Google. You can watch it here. (By the way, how does an internet search company get into self-driving cars? I'll save that for another time.) The car they were driving … oops, I mean the car that was driving them … has traveled 20,000 miles without an accident. That's impressive. Sure, there are some shortcomings with the car. The technology can't handle snow. Google's cars can't operate in heavy rain. The Mercedes S500 can't decipher hand gestures from traffic cops or pedestrians. These problems were all claimed to be solvable over time.
The Driverless Car Arms Race
UBER, Google, Audi, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz and others are investing in technology to move as fast as possible towards a driverless model. I remember as a kid being envious of George Jetson's capsule car but never thought autopilot in vehicles would come true in my lifetime. What's the rush? Well, these companies claim that having a driverless society would make the roads safer, and I believe them, but that would mean adoption would have to be 100 percent. The most unpredictable element on the road today is the human, and we are trying to engineer them (us) out of the equation.
What's to Come?
If you know how to write software or how to be a part of the software development ecosystem, then you should be gainfully employed in Detroit or in other high-tech companies looking to move in this direction for the rest of your life. Most of the innovation to accomplish this will have to be in software.
You know what's coming next, right? Government regulation. Which, by the way, I'm a fan of in this case in order to hopefully hold these companies accountable for meeting software safety standards that other industries have to comply with, like aviation. What's the difference between a jet plane on autopilot and your car being on autopilot, and why shouldn't the two be held to the same standards?
Respect the Human
I get it. Cars driving themselves are safer. This would allow us to do more productive things with our life, such as bury our heads further in our smartphones to catch up on Facebook or play a vicious game of Candy Crush.
Personally, driving a car is an emotional experience. You are in control of your freedom knowing that you can drive almost anywhere.
Software Quality and Security
Did you really think I would write all of this without mentioning the importance of software quality and security? I don't believe traditional car manufacturers understand the investment it will take to ensure the quality and security of software going into these vehicles. They have to evolve, from their operations to their culture. I openly admit companies like Tesla, Google and even Apple (if they decide to build the "iCar") have an advantage because they see the car as a software platform that you plug hardware into. Unfortunately, others view it the other way around and will have a hard time getting out of their own way.
In the meantime, I have turned off my lane departure warning and forward collision warning sensors because of too many false-positives. My passengers think perhaps it's my aggressive driving. They might be correct, but at least it's still my decision if I want to exceed the speed limit, beat another car off the line at a stop light or get to my destination 15 minutes early. That's right! It's my freedom of expression through driving! So get your “vroom vroom” on while you still can, before the autobots take over the roads and your garage.
PSC, Vice President