Robot Cars

Robot Cars

Let’s for a minute consider the complexities of those bubble-topped doggie dishes we see prominently featured on The Jetsons. It’s a wonderful technological accomplishment, the kind that can only take place in a cartoon world. These babies can not only move in all three dimensions, emitting a cheerful burbling sound, but they can reach escape velocity and get you to the moon (or a happenin’ asteroid) faster than you can say “astronomical unit.” I covet these puppies, not because of their fantastic speed and mobility, but because I’ve witnessed them flying themselves while a distracted Judy Jetson blabs her head off on the phone.

Robot Cars — the concept of self-guided individual transportation — have always held a fascination for me. They’ve been the source of many an argument, and many an hour lost to speculation and imagination. Growing up with a reliable (albeit slow) public transportation system, I cherish the thought of being able to read, write, or wave my hands like a maniac while I go from point to point — without having to worry about the SUV crowding my rearview mirror because I’m only going 10 miles above the speed limit.

The technology that would drive a Robot Cars is not quite here yet, but at this point in time it’s difficult to see it as a practical impossibility. Hardware, software, sensors — the raw components that could be assembled into a navigation system all exist now, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re all small/fast/cheap enough to do the job. Already, we’re seeing navigational systems, albeit passive, appearing in high-end vehicles.

If there are any obstacles inherent with the idea of a self-navigating vehicle, they lie in the more complex field of human nature. Some people just love to drive. Backseat drivers and control freaks would probably never feel comfortable in a robot car. And there are other, more complicated issues. Rudy Rucker, computer scientist and author of visionary works like Saucer Wisdom and Seek!, finds the whole idea somewhat implausible: “I tend to think robot cars won’t happen because of the huge legal exposure for anyone who builds one. But could they come about as kits like ultralight planes? No, not even that, I don’t think, as the risk is so great.”

It’s doubtful that a properly designed and tested robot car would have a drce fiction, which seems to have blithely leapfrogged over all the computational problems inherent in even getting a single prototype to navigate faster than 25 MPH down clean, well-lighted roads. But assuming such a system is ever perfected, I would imagine it would tend to render the great tradition of the free-ranging American car culture into something approaching mass-transit. After all, when your individual car becomes part of a massive circulatory system, with destination pre-selected (albeit by the owner) and all spontaneity removed, then what makes your travel any different than a train trip? Only that you choose the starting time personally. Even being able to theoretically ‘opaque’ your car windows and do any naughty thing you want during a long (or short!) trip is really not much different than indulging in an old-fashioned Pullman sleeper cab. I predict that automated roadways — besides offering plenty of Orwellian scenarios — will spell the death of Kerouackian ‘on the road’ culture even more than $3.00 per gallon gasoline!”

Rucker offers some additional scenarios. “Suppose we did have robot cars. Hackers could kidnap you by diverting your car. You could live in your car for a year and just have it drive and drive and drive, a new way to be homeless. There was a science fiction book in the ’50s about this, two families who lived always on the road, the Ramps and the Tollbooths, it was kind of a Romeo and Juliet tale, I forget the title. You’d tend to travel a lot more. Jams wouldn’t matter as much, it would be like when you’re on a train — you don’t much care about how long it takes as you have time. Cars would have to be bigger so you could walk around while it was driving.”

What would people do with all that free time? It’s not uncommon for someone to spend one or two hours a day in their car, simply getting to work and back. If you gave the average person an extra five or ten hours of leisure time a week, how would it be used? Increased literacy? Mobile television? Could you work on your way to work, and work on the way back, leaving you that extra time to spend outside your car? Nightlife could boom, once freed from the constraints of responsible drinking. Alcoholism and substance abuse could also rise.

What about this — would a car become just another utility, like water or telephone service, something which you pay for and use but not necessarily own? Parking lots could become parks, and your friendly auto mechanic and body shop could become as anachronistic as the milkman.

Given the factors involved, the conclusion would be that while it may be within the realm of possibility to produce a robot car, it’s difficult to say whether the idea of a Robot Car would ever become reality, and impossible to completely understand the ramifications of such a system. Maybe we just need to set our sights on visiting nearby asteroids instead. I hear Ceres is pretty happening…

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