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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Technology’s Going to Make People Forget How to Drive

The cockpit of an autonomous car with AI (Artificial Intelligence).

The technology behind driverless, “AI” cars seems to be advancing more quickly than people are comfortable with. Well, most people—some sleepy Tesla drivers are super-comfortable with computers taking the wheel.

Right now, a relative minority of people are comfortable ceding full control to their hardware, and even fewer can afford it. But the tech will get cheaper and more widespread. People will grow up with it, and eventually, fear of AI cars will seem antiquated.

It’s already easy to see how future generations will judge the very idea of humans driving cars. When you stop and really think about it, it already seems insane. People often cite air travel as being way safer than driving because it somehow makes us feel safer, even though many of us drive more than we fly. We have a blind spot when it comes to driving.

We let people drive for a century or two because we made cars before we could make AI. If we could (mostly) replace horses as a premier means of land travel after nearly 6,000 years, replacing manually driven cars as the standard will be nothing. Progress will march on, and all but the old-fashioned hobbyists will forget how to drive. But we’ll also forget that we ever cared about knowing how to drive.

Artist’s rendition of Tesla’s Autopilot sensor technology. Tesla

Car manufacturers have been trying to make cars that drive themselves since the early 20th century. At first, they used things like magnets and radio control. It wasn’t AI, but it betrayed an innate human desire: to sleep while driving.

Now, here we are in the 21st century, and the tech race toward driverless car technology is on. BMW has been working on driverless tech since 2005 or so. In 2010, a driverless Audi TTS was tested at near-race speed, and GM made its urban Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V) the following year. The Volkswagen Temporary Auto Pilot System, which began testing in 2012, can drive itself at 80 mph (on the highway—no Bourne Identity car chases in the city while you nap, yet).

And of course, there’s the Tesla, which is currently the most popular driverless car being abused by early adopters today (on the internet, anyway). I won’t be impressed until I see a video of someone taking a nap while off-roading in the Audi AI: Trail, which will have drones for headlights.

And it’s not just car companies jumping on the bandwagon. Google, for example, created the now-stand-alone subsidiary Waymo, which is working on a self-driving taxi service. It’ll be like current ride-share options, minus the part where a human makes extra money to pay rent. Apple is also working on something, presumably a Bluetooth-only car with no audio-in jack.

But, as I write this, we still don’t have fully driverless cars. They tend to be highway-only and fall under the umbrella of “assisting” drivers, rather than replacing them—at least in terms of what the public has access to. Elon Musk says the Tesla will be there soon, but there are a lot of limitations on AI right now that call for some skepticism on that account. So far, the only real public beta testers for AI cars without a human fail-safe—the real pioneers—are those willing to fall asleep on the highway while their car goes 70 mph.

The Possible Future of AI Cars

The Audi AI: Trail.
The Audi AI: Trail concept car. Audi

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