Think ahead. At 5:05 on a black December evening, a blizzard lashes cars and trucks as they creep across the bridges to Halifax, and then inch their way into gridlocks, and onward to grizzly entanglements at rotaries. But nobody in this entire mess leans on a horn even once, and nowhere to be seen is a cop directing traffic.
That’s because there’s no human driver in any of these vehicles, nor steering wheels or foot pedals. All those aboard are passengers, and entirely free to avoid even glancing at what’s ahead. They’re cleaning up the day’s deskwork, eating early dinners, watching television, trimming fingernails, playing chess, getting drunk, having sex, or … well, who knows?
No, you won’t see any totally self-driving or “autonomous” vehicles this year or next but, far sooner than you’ve probably ever expected, the first will cause a sensation on, say, Quinpool Road, and after that they’ll begin to shove off our streets and highways everything we’ve ever known as a car, taxi, bus, delivery truck, or 18-wheeler.
Elon Musk, creator of the headline-grabbing Tesla electric sedan, predicts that within “about two years,” those who used to be drivers will be able to sleep safely in his latest models from start to destination.
More than a year ago, Steven Mahan, a blind man, cruised around Austin, Texas, by himself, in a completely automatic car. Shaped like a gumdrop and concocted by Google, it had neither steering wheel nor pedals. “I had so much fun being aware it was navigating intersections, and that I was really in good hands, perfectly safe,” he said.
After working on autonomous vehicles for nearly a decade, Ford expects to have its own little fully automatic car on the road by 2021. Built for ride-hailing and sharing, it, too, will be without hand or foot controls, or any way for a human to take over as its driver.
The motor vehicles department of California recently proposed scrapping its rule that, no matter how automatic a vehicle might be, it must have a steering wheel, foot controls and a human backup driver. For the first time then, totally driverless cars may soon legally zip along the state’s public roads.
This will give a fabulous boost to the whole autonomous-vehicle industry. California boasts the fifth biggest economy in the world and, among U.S. states, the biggest population and biggest influence as a cultural trend-setter. It also chalks up the most car sales, and the change its highway officials now plan may well turn white-hot the already red-hot race to dominate the driverless-car business. The prize? A $35-billion US industry within eight years.
The competitors include Tesla, the big old automakers, Uber Technologies, various artificial intelligence outfits, the likes of Google and Apple and, all in all, no fewer than 27 companies that already have permits to test nearly autonomous vehicles on California roads. The technology for fully autonomous models is ready to go, and if safety-conscious governments relax their regulations as California plans to do, totally driverless cars may even be on the market next year.
Some industry experts expect that within a decade millions of completely automated autos and trucks will already be out on North American roads. In Halifax, they’ll likely be as commonplace as Toyotas, Hondas, Fords, and Chevys are now. Their total monopoly of road traffic is inevitable, and promises both enormous health benefits, and horrendous social troubles.
Running on electricity, they’ll wipe out virtually all the air pollution that petroleum-powered vehicles have been emitting for generations. They’ll thus shrink the number of deadly afflictions that filthy air causes and, at the same time, help in the war on global warming.
But they’ll also kill millions upon millions of jobs. In Halifax, they’ll throw out of work not only cab drivers (good-bye Casino Taxis, Yellow Cab, and all the others) but the drivers of Halifax Transit buses, snow plows, dump trucks, and delivery, transport, courier-service and tow trucks. Gas stations, driving schools, auto repair shops, and probably auto-insurance companies will all vanish like the once-thriving Hollis Street livery stable, and take with them countless jobs.
While negotiating clogged rotaries, zipping up Highway 102 to the airport, or going anywhere else, automated cars will never get drunk, drowsy, enraged, or distracted, and will therefore eliminate the more than 90% of traffic accidents caused by human error.
Wonderful news, to be sure, but what will Halifax hospitals do with an unprecedented oversupply of skilled physiotherapists and, in emergency rooms, highly-trained trauma staff?
As for me, I’m 83 and knowing I face the end of my driving days, I can hardly wait to summon my car from its garage, climb inside and, while I peruse the morning’s New York Times, have this obedient magic carpet take me downtown and neatly back itself into a parking spot near Steve-O-Reno’s. There, I’ll down a cappuccino and a warm blueberry muffin with butter, and thank heaven for artificial intelligence.