Self-driving cars are coming sooner than you expect, but they’re not going to be as futuristic and crazy as you expect. At least not at first.
I’m in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), an annual gathering of all the major technology companies in the world. There are plenty of automobile companies, as well. We’ve spotted BMW, Ford, Audi, and many others.
I got a demo of a car that can drive itself from Valeo, an autoparts supplier.
This was my first time being in a car that could drive itself. I was excited. I was stepping into the car of the future! The world would never be the same for me. This was a moment to savour, to tell my son, and his son, and his son, and his son. (I’m assuming Google figures out how to cure death, so I can tell this story over and over to future generations. By the fourth telling, I should be on Mars.)
So, what was it like? A tad underwhelming, but that’s probably because I sat in the back of the car. However, it gave me a glimpse of what is certain to be a glorious future.
There was a driver, and he just took his hands off the wheel, saying he was no longer operating the gas or the brake pedal. The car stopped at traffic lights, then accelerated when the light changed. When other cars slowed down, the car slowed down.
Valeo’s self-driving car technology is not as advanced as what Google talks about with its cars. Google’s cars are fully autonomous, allowing themselves to make all the turns needed to get you where you’re going.
Valeo’s technology is more like a glorified cruise control. It can handle straight driving on the highway, or in traffic of a town like Las Vegas.
While that might not sound terribly impressive, it’s quite practical.
Long drives on the highway can be boring. Using Valeo’s technology will allow people to do other, small things safely. They can check text messages, or read email if the car is in auto driving mode.
Or, even better, in traffic jams, people can turn on their auto-driving mode and do whatever else they want on their phones.
Guillaume Devauchelle, an executive at Valeo who sat in the back of the car with me, says this technology will be available in five years. He says you won’t have to worry about driving your own car in traffic jams in five years. (Though, he did warn that places like Mumbai might not be ready for this technology since they’re a bit funky.)
Devauchelle also said the Valeo technology is fairly inexpensive: only a few hundred dollars. He said that if I see other automated cars, I should ask how much all their sensors will cost, suggesting they will be very expensive.
I don’t know if Valeo’s technology is all that great. It worked fine in the car I was in. It’s possible there’s a better supplier out there. Maybe Googles software, or Audi’s software, or Ford’s software, or whoever, is better. I don’t know.
However, the fact that this exists is promising.
When people talk about self-driving cars, they tend to view it as all-or-nothing. Either Google will take over your car and create a fully autonomous vehicle that gets you from point A to point B, or not. In reality, there will be small steps that get us to this point.
What Valeo demonstrated is a starting point. Long, boring drives will be less boring if the car is in auto pilot. And as we get more comfortable with our cars going down the highway on auto pilot, we’ll get more comfortable with them doing more autonomous driving. In the future, they will be able to do other things, like park themselves (Tesla’s dual-motor Model S can already do that, actually).
I don’t know if we’ll ever have totally autonomous driving. My guess is that we won’t, since the world is very complicated with ever-changing factors that can throw off a car. However, cars that can make gridlock less terrible? That’s happening, and it’s happening in the near future.
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