Google wants to drive my future

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I’ve always loved driving. In fact I’ve had an affinity for anything with wheels from the moment I learnt to sit up on my own, right through past my quarter-life crisis and into my early thirties. Like most boys growing up I had my fair share of playing with Matchbox cars, remotely controlling my 80’s ‘Jet Hopper’ until the batteries went flat four minutes later, and built many, many lego and model cars. But while these were fun to play with, the real passion and obsession I have with cars developed when I grasped my very first steering wheel.

Ben 30 photoMy very first car was a bright red Jeep pedal car my parents bought me for my first birthday. And straight away I was hooked. I spent hours, days, years in that thing. I would drive it around all day from one end of my parent’s acreage property to the other and back again. It was my pride and joy. I loved and drove it so much that one day (when I was way too big to fit inside the driver’s seat anymore) the body started to break in half and eventually the steering wheel snapped clean off the steering column.

From there I worked up to BMX bikes, then to several mountain bikes—all of which I rode into the ground until they eventually gave up. Then as I got older things with engines began to take my interest. It started with the ride-on mower. Now the 2.5 acre block I grew up on is not exactly flat with perfect green grass … in fact, it’s the polar opposite of that—a massive slope covered in trees, branches, stumps and scrubby tufts of grass. So when you think of me mowing an acreage property, don’t think of a country club with tennis courts and chardonnay, think more like the variety bash or Dakar rally … just with a cutting deck. So I’m pretty confident in saying I learnt many of my driving skills while trying not to drive the lawn mower down any embankments or into fences of barbed wire.

‘I drove that 0.85 litre three cylinder engine like it was a Lamborghini Aventador.’

When I was almost at the age of getting my learners, I used to back the family car down the long driveway to pick my little brother up from the school bus every afternoon. Then after getting my licence and driving my parents’ cars around for about six months, I finally got the chance to buy a car of my own. It was a Daihatsu Handivan. It had two doors, two seats and tyres that looked like they were stolen from a BMX bike … but it was MY car, and I drove that 0.85 litre three cylinder engine like it was a Lamborghini Aventador.

One night while stopped at an intersection, my ‘dog box on wheels’ got rammed by a Nissan Patrol with a trailer loaded full of pavers, bags of cement and a cement mixer. Though the car was mostly okay, I decided I needed a bigger and safer car. I went for another Daihatsu, this time a Pyzar. Although it looked a little unusual, the Pyzar was a great little car and my girlfriend (now wife) had many adventures and road trips in it during the seven years I owned it.

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And this brings us to the present day. I bought a twelve-month-old Audi A3 about five years ago, and it remains to this day one of my favourite cars that I’ve ever driven. With its turbo-charged engine and six-speed DSG gearbox, it’s pretty hard to beat the feeling of taking the A3 out onto a twisty country road letting it fly through the corners. This is when the car and I have our closest bond—we’re physically connected to each other and we’re thinking and moving as one. It’s like the car has become a giant metallic extension of my own arms and legs, allowing me to be faster, stronger and more powerful than I ever could be in my own body alone. And I love that feeling.

For many people a car is simply an appliance, like a fridge or toaster, that simply gets them from point A to point B with greater convenience and speed than if they had to walk. Whereas for me my car is more than that. It’s a reflection on my personality. I’m proud that I’m passionate about cars, and the car I choose to buy and the way I choose to drive it makes up part of who I am as a person.

 

Change is on the horizon.

So why have I told you all this? Well, if you’re living in Australia and you own a car, there’s a pretty high chance that you don’t share my passion for getting behind the wheel.

The top ten of new car models sold in April 2013 (excluding trade vehicles including the Hilux, Navara and Ranger) were the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Holden Cruze, Hyundai i30, Ford Focus, Holden Captiva and Toyota Camry. All of these cars are perfectly capable modes of transport: affordable, relatively comfortable and easy to drive. But they’re not the types of cars that people who love to drive would buy.

I appreciate our fridge. It keeps our food fresh, it’s reliable and has never missed a beat. Our lives would be much worse if we didn’t have it. But I don’t have an emotional connection to it. If it burst into flames one day, we’d throw it out and buy a new one without a second thought. And from what I’ve observed, the greater majority of people these days have a similar feeling about their cars.

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Even if we wind the clock back fifty years to the era of ‘The Great Australian Dream’ where the ultimate expression of success and security was home ownership, owning a car was simply part of that ‘dream lifestyle’. It was more about the freedom and status that car ownership provided rather than people having a passion for cars and driving as such.

‘It’s getting to the point where it’s a national disgrace.’

And you only need to observe people’s driving habits in this country to realise pretty quickly that we’re a nation of careless and disinterested drivers. People not indicating, not letting people in, people tailgating others, people sitting 10km/h below the speed limit in the right-hand lane, road rage and people giving other drivers the middle finger … the list goes on forever. Not a day goes by that I don’t see another person on the road who should have their licence immediately revoked and their car crushed. It’s getting to the point where it’s a national disgrace. One only needs to look to countries like Germany to get an idea of how bad most drivers in Australia really are. And I reckon car makers have cottoned on to this idea that most people are not interested nor highly skilled at driving, and as such are beginning to add a whole host of electronic driver aids and vehicle automation at an astonishing rate.

Kluger_WPThere are many cars on the market, for sale right now in Australia, that sport features such as automatic reverse parking, lane departure warning systems, blind spot notification lights, radar guided adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking systems just to name a few. These are all focused on safety and avoiding accidents, whereas many other automated features are more orientated towards driver convenience. These include: automatic headlights, automatic windscreen wipers, automatic climate control, keyless entry and engine starting, plus the ultimate in not having to lift a finger: hydraulic self-opening and self-closing tailgates, such as the ones fitted to top-of-the-range Toyota Klugers.

Technology like this is only going to increase in the next few years. Audi are working on a system that you can switch on in stop-start traffic that takes over accelerating, braking and steering. Cameras and radars watch the lines on the road to keep the car in your lane and also keep an eye on the car in front so that you avoid any nasty nose-to-tail prangs synonymous with peak hour traffic jams. BMW are working on a system that’s designed for boring highway driving that does a similar job to the Audi system except at highway speeds. Audi are also working on a self-parking car where you can pull up at the entrance of a building or hotel, hop out, then using an App on your iPhone you can command your car to go and park itself in the parking lot … and then retrieve your car the same way upon your return.

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Possibly the most significant step towards automotive automation however is Google’s driverless car project. For about two years now, Google have been testing a driverless car system where vehicles are fitted with about US$150,000 worth of equipment including a LIDAR (laser radar) system, and through mapping and other software the cars basically drive themselves. The software controls steering, accelerating and braking, while the LIDAR system looks out for other vehicles, pedestrians and other objects or obstructions. As of September 2012, three US states (Nevada, Florida and California) have passed laws permitting testing of ‘autonomous cars’, though during testing all vehicles have had a driver that can take over from the computer at any time in the event of a malfunction.

The video below shows the Google driverless car in action:

 

Cars in the future.

I’m both excited and a bit scared about what the future might hold for my beloved driving machine. On one hand most indications are pointing to full automation at some point soon where driving will become a task that only people’s grandparents reminisce about. In theory, this technology will make the roads a much safer place to be. On the other hand, the number of times each day something on my iPhone or Mac fucks up and crashes makes me a little wary about handing over complete control of a two-tonne vehicle carrying precious human cargo to a computer. You may have seen this video of Volvo demonstrating its new automatic emergency braking system to the media …

If however, Google’s claim that they’ve done 500,000kms of driverless testing without a single incident or accident is true, then the future of automation is looking pretty promising. Personally I can imagine a world free from car accidents and road-related fatalities. A road network free from careless drivers, tailgaters, Sunday drivers, assholes and dickheads. Traffic lights may become a thing of the past. Even things like headlights and windscreen wipers may become redundant if no-one needs to see where they are going.

And I reckon if we remove incompetent, inattentive and disinterested drivers from the equation, the modern menace that is ‘traffic jams’ may simply disappear. Imagine the number of wasted hours, wasted fuel and wasted money that could be recovered if we eradicate traffic congestion worldwide! Not to mention the health and wellbeing of commuters not having to put up with the daily stress it causes.

‘The technologies involved will create new jobs for a new generation of people.’

I can also see services like buses and taxis being App driven: just book a taxi via a smartphone App and when it arrives it already knows where it’s going to take you—it might even know where the airport is! It could revolutionise freight transport too, with B-Double trucks that don’t need to stop for a break every two hours nor be involved in fatigue related accidents. Sure, all this stuff will put a lot of people out of a job, but the technologies involved will create new jobs for a new generation of people.

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So. Future car technology that will do a much better, safer and more efficient job of transporting people where they need to go? Sounds like a no-brainer to me. There is that one question that remains in my mind though: will I still be passionate about my car even if I don’t get to drive it? Or will the loss of any kind of physical connection between my body and the machine demote it down to the ranking of household appliance? Unfortunately, I feel that it will be the latter.

In the same way that horse riding is now a hobby (due to the fact that people don’t ride horses to work anymore), I think motorsport and the act of ‘driving’ will become a specialised activity only for those that are interested and nostalgically passionate.

If Google eventually gets its way, kids in school will one day read about a primitive point in human history where people used to drive their own cars around with their own two hands and feet … and they’ll have no idea just how much I loved it! +

Reckoner had its humble beginnings way back in June of 2013.

Founded by James Croft, along with Peter Wells and Anthony Agius they created what would go on to become one of Australia’s most highly regarded and award winning independent tech blogs.

With its uniquely Australian voice Reckoner is committed to offering a “no-holds-barred” approach to its writing. Beholden to no one but its audience. Reckoner’s goal is to remain completely transparent and honour the trust it’s built with its faithful readership.

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