Removing the most dangerous and innefficient component in our cars

March 20th, 2012 § 0 comments

Soon the roads will be safer to travel. We will be able to travel faster and traffic will be dramatically reduced. Fuel efficiency1 will improve and our cars will last longer. We can achieve all of this without changing a single thing about our cars except who, or more appropriately what, drives our cars. The only thing standing in the way is you, the human driver.

While humans react within seconds to a hazard, computers can react in milliseconds. If the cars can talk to one another then a problem can be instantly broadcast for miles around and corrective measures can be taken2. Not only will this improve the flow of traffic but it also means our cars can travel inches from the vehicle in front and have plenty of time to avoid what will quickly become a rare event, car crashes. Narrower gaps mean more vehicles can fit on the road and fuel efficiency will improve because of drafting3 and far more prudent use of the gas and brake pedals. Finally speed limits will be raised as the most dangerous component of the car is moved to the back seat, us.

We will not go quietly though. I, for one, thoroughly enjoy driving my manual transmission car at speeds many consider fool hearty. The most difficult part, however, is going to be relinquishing control. We’ve all had a computer malfunction on us and it’s going to be hard to trust our lives to one. The engineers will point out that many aspects of your car are already controlled by computers but it won’t matter. People trust what they can see and touch. Some little box buried under the hood somewhere does not instill confidence.

It was after watching this video about the new Mercedes-Benz safety features that I realized this process wasn’t going to be some revolutionary change that happens within a decade, but rather a gradual one that spans 20-30 years.

I find it fascinating that for the first time we have a computer applying brakes. We’ve all had a computer control the gas through the use of cruise control but I have never seen a car that will automatically apply the brakes. It hasn’t taken control of the steering wheel yet but by applying the brakes on one side of the car to avoid accidentally drifting into the wrong lane it has started to steer the car. Paramount is the fact that the computer is countermanding your input. With cruise control it simply does what you tell it to do, but by steering you away from a car in your blind spot the computer is deciding that it has better information.

So imagine yourself with a car like this. Gradually you will come to realize that it knows how to drive the car better than you do. It will start when it prevents you from drifting into oncoming traffic or let’s you know it’s time for a coffee break because you are exhibiting signs of drowsiness. When your car applies the breaks in a way that not only prevents you from rear-ending the car in front of you but also allows the minivan behind you to stop in time you will be ready to hand over the steering wheel.

  1. Please do not get pedantic with me about what will power our cars in 20 years. Whether it’s dead dinosaurs or fairy dust harvested from butterfly wings as long as it costs something efficiency will always matter. []
  2. Cars can either be re-routed or slow down to create a gap and allow emergency crews to do their job quickly []
  3. If one vehicle can travel closely behind another then it doesn’t have to worry about pushing air out of the way leading to much higher fuel efficiency. Big rigs do this all the time. []

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