This may sound like a silly question, but if you think about it, even in the medium term, can our cars stay in their current form?

I’ve been lucky enough to sit down and participate in a debate about the future of transport and transport safety with engineers, scientists and other professionals. This involved, strangely enough, a debate centred on automated cars, which really do seem to be a realistic prospect in the not too distant future. Exhibit A: the Google Prius.

A petrolhead I may be, but I’m also a pragmatist when it comes to technology. I might look at a 1960s Mustang fastback with lustful eyes when I walk past one, but I really wouldn’t want to be in control of a car that’s nearly fifty and designed in an era when crash safety didn’t exist.

A lot of people think of this “golden age” of motoring, when petrol was cheap, V8s were mostly affordable and a three speed automatic gearbox was the envy of the world. But, there were lots of downsides too. I mean, think of a Ford Pinto, and all you’ll remember is the potential to enter the Pearly Gates in the company of an enormous fireball. But the future is ultimately where the sweet, sweet saviour of automation lies. Therein lies the question: would you buy a car that could drive itself? Do you trust robots more than your fellow man?

The case for robot cars

Let’s face it, whether you’re aware of it or not, lots of things in life are already automated. iPhones sync data across the iCloud to your iMac while you eat your iNoodles. If you fly on a commercial airliner, take off, landing and cruising are all automated, requiring minimal input from the pilot and first officer. If you visit Singapore, and many other cities in the world, some of their subway systems are completely automated, no signals, no drivers, just smooth running.

So, why not for cars too? We already rely on rudimentary computer control for lots of things in cars, ABS, dynamic stability control, and now the cars will brake if we’re looking closely at our iPhones while drinking iCoffee, instead of concentrating on driving. But isn’t that really the crux of the problem?

Most people don’t really enjoy driving, whether as part of their commute, or when they’re on the way to their favourite camp site during the summer holidays, with the kids asking whether they’ve arrived yet. If they did, they wouldn’t buy Toyota Camrys. No wonder people drive with their phones in their hands checking their Faceplant pages. If cars can be made completely automated, why wouldn’t that be a benefit to society? No more road rage, no red light running, booze buses would be completely unnecessary, just to name some benefits.

But for many generations that grew up with the notion of control, it might be quite an eerie and scary experience to trust in the guidance of a robot while on the road.

The case against robot cars

Simply put, there is only one case against this, and that is for those people who do enjoy driving, a robot would spell the end of having to learn how to drive, no need for steering wheels and manual gearboxes, clutches etc.. But I don’t think that necessarily spells the end for cars that need our attention and control.

Ok, maybe two: we don’t trust the robots to do “as good a job” as we can. The trouble is, we only have two eyes, while these things have different kinds of sensors plastered all over them!

What form will a car be in the future?

I think that the car as we see today, in some forms, will still have a limited future. The technology will still be used by automated cars, and controlled by the onboard computers. But people who like to drive, who are racing drivers, or like to do it recreationally, can still do so in a semi or fully controlled environment.

Automated cars will still need all the crash protection mechanisms we have today, just in case of some systems failure, but the engines and other unseen bits could be packaged differently and more efficiently.

Perhaps the sedan and the SUV will merge into something a bit taller, but the space underneath the passenger compartment is taken up with the gubbins, at once reducing the polar moment of inertia, and allowing for more internal room.

Predicting the future is fraught with issues, since there are an infinite number of possibilities. What I do know, is that there is a transport revolution coming within our lifetimes, one that I very much look forward to.


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