The Shift to Driverless Cars

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: January 11, 2021

(The first installment in a series looking at how the cars of yesterday are being transformed into the driverless cars of tomorrow via the technology of today.)

Automotive and technology companies alike are working feverishly to develop driverless cars for mass production. There is no question that the entire landscape of the driving environment will be radically affected as these automobiles become more commonplace.

Public opinion concerning these developments ranges from disinterest to eager anticipation. Whatever the level of acceptance, fully automated cars appear inevitable and their impact will be great. This impact will not be limited strictly to streets and highways, but the effect will be felt by many other industries as well.

We will use other posts to explore the societal impact of these new technologies, but this blog is the first of a series exploring how the technologies that will eventually make driverless cars possible are already at work in the cars we drive today.

How We’re Getting There

While some consumers are looking forward to the day when they will be transported by a car that will in effect be their personal chauffeur, one of the primary goals of autonomous vehicles is to improve the efficiency and safety of the driving experience. Automakers have long understood the need for keeping motorists safe as dead people don’t tend to buy cars. Nearly 60 years ago the move toward safer cars began humbly and, at times, faultingly. Some carmakers took great pride in advertising safety “innovations” such as sun visors and padded dashboards! In the late 1960s, the seatbelt, the first true safety feature, was put into widespread use, and it took another 20 years for the airbag’s widespread adoption.

Fortunately, in the current age of innovation, modifications and improvements are no longer taking this long. If you have recently purchased an automobile, perhaps one of the most objective indicators of the rapid evolution of the automobile is in the sheer number of warning lights now hidden in the instrument cluster. Many of these indicator lights are associated with technologies that didn’t exist in cars as little as five years ago. Many drivers have only the vaguest notions of what functions are being performed by the technology symbolized by these various lighted icons. Fuel gauges are easy as are temperature and oil pressure indicators. Even the most inexperienced driver understands that when the generic check engine light comes on that at the very least they should have someone, well, check their engine. But here’s a challenge: turn your ignition key to the on position and quiz yourself as to what you would do if one of those other mysterious lights started flashing. You do remember where your owners manual is, right?

The marketing firms employed by major auto manufacturers have done an excellent job introducing some of the latest safety and technology innovations available in cars, in name, at least. Commercials throw out terms like “lane departure warning,” “automatic reverse braking,” and “adaptive cruise control.” The problem is that most consumers, while smart enough to use context clues to guess at the possible functions of technologies with names like these, may not be entirely sure what these technologies are doing for them. Watch for installments of this series in the days and weeks to come to help you take greater advantage of benefits afforded to drivers by the car of today. After all, the way things are looking, you may not have much time left behind the wheel to enjoy them.