Self-driving cars: Yes, please! Now, please!

The drumbeat is growing for autonomous vehicles. Despite legal, manufacturer, and emotional issues, self-driving cars will save lives, improve traffic, and reduce oil dependence, says CNET's Molly Wood. So, get on it, already!

I love to drive. And yet, I cannot wait for self-driving cars. Question is: who will bring them to the masses first? And how soon?

Google autonomous car
Google's autonomous cars have racked up many miles of testing on public roads. Can I have one now? Google

I hear your comments right now: "I will never let a computer drive me to work, it's not safe!" "I'm a great driver, it's everyone else who is the problem." "But I love my BMW/Audi/Mercedes/Hyundai Genesis/Ferrari/Jetta Sportwagen too much to ever let the car do the driving!"

Let's try to separate the mind from the machine, because trust me: mainstream adoption of automated cars will help improve the environment, use less fuel, reduce traffic to virtually zero, save billions of dollars per year, and most importantly: save a lot of lives and limbs.

This is the kind of argument that we in the geek community inherently understand. Computers are better at certain things than humans are. They don't get competitive, stressed out, angry, confused, or drunk--and they are perfectly capable of texting while driving, unlike us. They can negotiate merges, calculate stopping distance, maintain speed, and react more quickly than we can. This isn't just about bad driving, although self-driving cars could solve that problem, too. It's about human inefficiency, and safety.

Many auto manufacturers agree, and are working hard to bring autonomous vehicles to the road in one form or another. GM predicts semi-autonomous cars to be available by the middle of the decade, and fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. Audi announced its moves toward semi-autonomous drive mode at CES this year. BMW's i3 electric city car will include a traffic jam assistant that auto-navigates through traffic jams at slow speeds, and both BMW and Volkswagen say they're moving toward incremental rollouts of semi-autonomous driver-assistance packages, with some features available now.

Great. I'm all for it. Let's get moving! Unfortunately, although the technology is getting closer, the world, it seems, is not.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show gathering in Las Vegas, I and a handful of my tech news colleagues attended a dinner with several Ford executives, including CEO Alan Mulally. It's clear that automated vehicles are on the collective mind of the tech world. Mulally was asked about self-driving cars several times, including by me.

But each time, even after enduring quite a long lecture from the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg on the topic of distracted driving, the affable Mulally said quite firmly that Ford would not be developing self-driving cars, or even introducing self-driving mode in vehicles.

And at a recent symposium held to discuss the issue, concerns over regulations, liability, insurance, and safety seemed to put the brakes on some of the enthusiasm for the concept. And sadly, O. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told the collected experts he thought the public "ought to be petrified" of the idea of cars driving themselves at high speeds.

So, fear and politics are likely to slow this convoy in the short term--but I suspect not for long. There's a growing drumbeat of support from the geek community for the obvious safety benefits of autonomous vehicles. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford University professor who guides Google's self-driving car project, has been increasingly outspoken about the safety benefits of autonomous cars, and obviously, the geek community is rallying: Wired magazine just made autonomous cars its cover story for January.

The revolution will come. But how quickly? As I mentioned, GM, BMW, Audi, and others are pushing for a gradual rollout of driving assistance technologies, with fully autonomous vehicles not due until 2020 or beyond. Digital Trends this week quotes a Volvo engineer who'd like to see a dramatic shift toward fully autonomous driving sooner than later. Ford is obviously sitting heavily on the opposite end of the spectrum, refusing to even have the conversation--at least publicly. And then, of course, we'll have to fight out the legal issues--and the emotional ones.

Meet "Shelley," Stanford University's driverless car.
Meet "Shelley," Stanford University's driverless car. I'd also like the ability to drive it myself, obviously. CBS

Fear and love of driving are major emotional barriers for people in terms of accepting the idea of autonomous cars. So let me propose a dramatic shift that's not a move to a fully autonomous society: equip every car with autonomous mode by 2015. Give us all the ability to flip the car into autonomous driving mode as needed, to answer a call or text, to get a little work done during the morning commute, or to negotiate bad traffic.

And here's a controversial idea: combine the technological advances with mandatory auto-mode zones or drive times, which will help push consumer and manufacturer adoption. The San Francisco Bay Bridge between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.? Auto-mode only. Cars don't cause traffic, people driving cars cause traffic. Let computers handle the switch from two lanes to six and then back to two again. Forget congestion pricing: mandate auto mode in congested areas by 2015, and you'll definitely get the tech moving.

Autonomous mode in all vehicles doesn't have to remove all responsibility for driving, and I don't want it to. Technology can simply take the burden off drivers when it will benefit them, those around them, and the community at large. And for long, winding back-country roads, there's always manual mode. Let's be honest: that's the only time driving is fun anymore anyway.

 

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