April 20, 2018

Have we Skipped a Step or Two? Trajectory: Autonomous

Skipping ahead and passing “Go” in Monopoly usually nets you a cool $200 clams, the downside being you miss out on potentially lucrative property cards that could be seized by another player. With the roll of the dice, this momentary advantage could facilitate a loss in the end. With last month’s tragic autonomous Uber crash fresh on the mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in its zeal, the automotive industry has skipped right past “Go” more than a couple of times in the past few years.

It’s easy to look back fondly on the car you drove in high school or the places you used to frequent, but I bet if you took a closer look you may find that these favorites haven’t been gone nearly as long as memory would lead you to believe (*your mileage may vary). Nowhere is this truer than in advancements in vehicle technology. Many safety and ease-of-use improvements we now take for granted are in fact recent additions. Take anti-lock brakes, for instance. ABS systems weren’t standard on run-of-the-mill vehicles until the mid 1990’s, with related stability control units only released in 1995 as an option on top-trim Q cars. It’s worth noting that stability control, essentially a combination of ABS and traction control, was only federally mandated as a standard feature in 2012. Also released in 1995: side impact airbags (thank you, Volvo). What about tire pressure monitoring? Mandated for all new cars in 2007. Even blind spot monitoring and lane-departure warning systems are relatively recent additions to our safety toolbox. Indeed, this compendium of modern safety features can turn the tide in an emergency for even the most mediocre of drivers, and has undoubtedly saved many a life as a result.

Take a more discerning look, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that every one of the aforementioned features is an incremental, and proven, evolution of a previous design or idea. As safety once again supplants performance as the emotion to cater to when selling cars, manufacturers are quick to boast of those features their vehicles have that others lack, no matter how gimmicky. So, is the next step truly fully autonomous cars?

There’s no doubt that at some point in the future autonomous transit will be the safest choice, though perhaps not while concurrently occupying the same dense infrastructure as machines operated by us human pilots. Despite intricate programming, a “driver” built of circuit boards, processors, and algorithms is bound to respond to situations out on the open road quite differently from Joe average. While it’s exciting to discuss how we’ll be commuting in twenty years’ times, sometimes it’s best not to skip a step on the route to the destination. Yuki Saji, CEO of SB Drive, summed up this approach by stating his firm belief that the first successful rollout of commercial autonomous vehicles will occur in rural areas as “dealing with more predictable environments and known routes…is simpler for AI to navigate.” Makes sense.

Until then, drive safe knowing there’s still a lot of life left in, and improvement to be made to, the traditional vehicle.

Elliott Schendel

Director, Marketing

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