More on the future of driverless cars

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One.)

Let’s continue our journey into our driverless future and see what really makes sense.

As a way of researching this topic, I posed the question to fellow futurists and got some insightful perspectives on what effect a competition like this would have both on the sport of auto racing as well as the changing state of the human condition.

Dr. Cindy Frewen Wuellner is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Futures Studies Department, Editor of Urbanverse, and Architect & Owner at Frewen Architects Inc.

“The human element of uncertainty is truly the holy grail in the singularity dream. Nascar fans just wait for the crash. Will there be an optimization of crashes by the driverless car? Will a race with more promised crashes, more aggressive cars be the next revenue generator? Only when humans are completely removed from the track. In other words it is just a video game with a physical manifestation. What’s fun about that?

Once we are done marveling at the invention, who will be the hero in the winner’s circle?

Sports has to remain a test of human endurance. Here’s a case where the sport is a machine/human hybrid. What percentage of human involvement retains the credibility of the game? In this case, complete replacement makes the sport obsolete.”

Lloyd Walker is the President of Precurve LLC and is on the faculty of the Art Center College of Design.

“In my opinion, it won’t happen in five years, not because the tech won’t exist to allow it, but because the professional race car drivers who make tens of millions/year, their sponsors and the huge industry that is spectator car racing has very little to gain from a machine vs. human race and everything to lose.

“Tech in the top level of racing is already highly regulated so that the human is still critical path in the loop. If not, robot cars would already be winning. There are many limits on all kinds of allowable tech because machine assistance creates so many advantages.

“A self-driving car with full track awareness deploying a full spectrum of performance features would smoke human drivers in five years. A robotic F1 car is arguably easier to do than a jeopardy-bot. The track is a closed system with known physics on a very limited set of performance parameters. So the robot would need to be highly constrained to create a fair handicap.

“A robotic race car, using real time data feeds of conditions and driver performance from around the track, external of its own POV and on top of its highly accurate onboard track model, would have too large an advantage. How much computing power would be allowed? How many networked track sensors and data feeds from outside the car could be allowed? Could the car’s algorithm include any historical psychological profile of human competitors?

“What about real-time sensing of human driver emotions or physiological conditions. Would human technicians be allowed to update routines during the race? A robotic car is ultimately a networked device, as is a professional driver/car and support team.

“But a human driver’s ability to consume new data from his advisors or network while driving is orders of magnitude less than a robot driver. It is external sensors, data bandwidth, computing speed, and precision that makes robot cars on the road attractive – and inevitable. Artificially handicapping those things in a race wouldn’t be a full demonstration of the capability.

“I can certainly imagine Google or Tesla staging demonstration races to show that their self-driving cars can beat humans or beat historical track times within five years. But it seems economically and egotistically unattractive for top human race drivers to engage in such a showdown.”

What Effect will Driverless Cars Have on the Auto Industry?

The driverless car market will evolve dramatically over the next couple decades. 

The first generation of cars will be privately owned and operated. They will grow from part-time driverless, under a designated speed and only during certain conditions, to completely driverless sleep-in-the-back-seat-while-traveling, autonomous vehicles.

Later generations will shift towards on-demand vehicles that can be summoned whenever needed. Smartphone apps will enable people to hail a car even more easily than taxis today. Car ownership will plummet, but overall transportation will improve dramatically.

Once people no longer own a personal vehicle, their attitudes about them will begin to shift. In much the same way we care little about whether our plane is made by Boeing or Airbus, people will care little about the brand of car, the tires it rides on, or the kind of fuel it uses. Certainly fleet operators will care a great deal about these issues, but the riding public will shift their attention to more personal matters.

Instead, people will be more concerned about rider options such as whether it’s a private or carpool vehicle, space for shopping bags, cleanliness and general levels of comfort. Also, high on their priority list will be the speed with which it can cross a city.

Driverless cars will start as a luxury item, but will quickly transition into a common form of transportation. Eventually governments will pass laws making driverless vehicles mandatory on all major thoroughfares. Once the human variable is eliminated, overall efficiencies will climb dramatically.

Any roadway with 100 percent driverless vehicles will offer huge advantages. Car will be able to drive closer – side-to-side and front-to-back – and most importantly, they’ll be able to drive much faster.

The point of a competition like this will be to publicly demonstrate driverless cars are both super-fast and super-safe.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that staged competitions like this are a form of marketing. It’s an entertaining event designed to capture the whole world’s attention for the purpose of conveying a certain message. 

The competition is never intended to destroy a sport or somehow wreck a piece of the entertainment industry. Chess tournaments are still happening and Jeopardy is still a money-making TV game show. Rather, it’s to prove a point. IBM used it very effectively to prove they are the industry leaders in the area of human-thinking computers.

At the same time, I think IBM got it wrong. With both the 1997 and 2011 events, the event was staged, the computer won, and everyone went back to business as usual. When savvy marketing people are involved, the one-and-done approach leaves tons of opportunity still on the table.

If IBM had lost the early rounds of the competition, they could have done a far better job of milking public sympathy and, in the end, it would have seemed like a far greater accomplishment. 

In their current state, driverless cars suffer from low consumer confidence and credibility. A well-planned competition could both assure the public that driverless cars are indeed safe, and even raise the bar of expectations, showing they can be safe at over 200 mph.

So will a competition like this happen during the next five years?