A few years ago, there were a lot of headlines about self-driving cars. Whatever happened to that? Well, they’re closer than you think. Already, a Tesla on cruise control can pass the slowpoke ahead of you all by itself.
And if you’re on the highway and there’s a GPS destination, the car can suggest changing lanes to get into the exit ramp lane. Then, it signals and takes the exit for you. The car slows down to the correct speed limit for the exit ramp; then, a chime sounds alerting you to take over.
And self-driving taxi service is available in four American cities (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and the Dallas area), with more on the way. “Forty thousand people have already done it,” said Jody Kelman, director of Lyft’s self-driving taxi program. “This is becoming incredibly normal for people.”
Karl Iagnemma, the president of self-driving at Aptiv (which builds self-driving technology for Lyft and other fleets), said, “These cars never get drowsy. They’re never impaired by alcohol. They’re never distracted by their cell phones. It pretty much still looks like a regular car.”
He showed correspondent David Pogue the technology employed: “We’ve got 21 sensors very seamlessly integrated [into the vehicle]. We have these LiDARs in front [or “Light Detection and Ranging” sensors]. We got radars. We have some camera systems looking forward.”
The first thing Pogue noticed when he got into a driverless taxi was that it had a driver. “They’re ready to take over in case the car sees something unexpected, or does something that we didn’t anticipate,” said Iagnemma.
What do you mean? “Well, in Singapore, we were driving one day, we saw crossing the road a fellow in a chicken suit,” Iagnemma replied.
The car didn’t recognize the chicken suit? “The car wasn’t quite sure what was going on!”
During Pogue’s 45-minute ride, the safety human never touched the controls. The driving was safe, smooth, and polite, which is more than can be said for all the human drivers nearby.
Afterwards, in what was the polar opposite of an autonomous car, Jason Torchinsky, the author of “Robot, Take the Wheel,” himself took the wheel of a 1966 MG, and took Pogue for a spin. “You’re controlling everything, which is kind of what makes driving an old car like this so wonderful,” Torchinsky said.
“When you’re driving, there’s a satisfaction that happens when you feel everything. When you’re in a self-driving car, it’s like taking a plane: You get in in one place, you look at your phone for three hours, and you get off at a new place.”
Pogue asked, “So, are you a self-driving hater?”
“No, by no means,” Torchinsky said. “I think there’s a place for self-driving cars, absolutely. But I never want to give up my own ability to drive.”
The road to self-driving hasn’t been entirely smooth. Five people have died in self-driving car accidents. Computers are not perfect.
Of course, as Aptiv’s Karl Iagnemma points out, human-driven cars have a much worse record. “Worldwide, over 1.3 million people dying per year on the road,” he said, “and we believe that we can dramatically reduce that number. Those are preventable deaths.”
Pogue asked, “I’m sure there are people who are watching this broadcast going, ‘You’ll never catch me in one of those things.’ What do you say to those people.”
“I say, ‘Go to Vegas and try it for yourself!'” he laughed. “In Vegas we’ve never had an accident caused by our technology. And once people get in the car and feel how safe it is and how comfortable and smooth, they’re believers.”
Not convinced? Well, don’t worry: For the foreseeable future, driverless cars will be more than safe, comfortable, and smooth – they’ll also be optional.
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato.