The auto: Where it is, where it’s been, where it’s going

Electric car from Edison
Electric car from Edison

The horseless carriage or automobile has been around since the late 19th century. In the car’s lifetime, there has been relatively little change in the basic design. Almost all have steering wheels, most ride on four wheels using two axles, all possess some type of propulsion source, most have a trunk and the majority have front and rear seating, doors that open and close along a horizontal plane as opposed to a vertical one and all production models require being driven. Each and every one is a variation on the same basic theme.

The differences can be found in body design, mechanical and electrical system design and performance, engine design and performance, ride quality and things of this nature – mostly subtle differences from one vehicle to the next. Up until only recently, all motor vehicles had tailpipes to exhaust pollutants into the atmosphere, pollution created due to internal combustion processes. Many still pollute but certainly not all. Over the years these mobile devices have become more sophisticated, they perform more functions automatically resulting in the driver doing less and less.

As good as the automobile has become in doing what it does (which would be to provide mobility), in the environment in which these power vehicles operate, there is still much to be desired. Accidents still occur. In fact, the number of lives lost in roadway collisions and crashes in the U.S. numbers in the tens of thousands each year. Traffic congestion/gridlock and delay is an economic drain eating up an estimated $101 billion annually, in terms of the amount of fuel and time wasted. While the vast majority of motor vehicles still pollute the air, there are those that burn fuel cleaner compared to others. Some don’t even pollute at all.

The above is a synopsis of the story of the automobile, obviously. Where motor vehicle development goes from here is anybody’s guess. But, current research, development and testing in the field could be clues.

Autonomous automobility: Can this really work?

There is the prospect of self-driving cars becoming a mainstay on roadways all across the globe if all falls into its proper place. The kind of excitement regarding development progress in this area, I don’t believe I’ve seen anything quite like this before. I fully understand why people are all abuzz about this possibility. The concept is truly revolutionary; I’ve got to give it that. But is autonomy in the automatic mobility realm the car concept of the future – be that future near or far-off?

Before getting too excited, there are many questions needing answering. One of the biggest concerns is safety. What am I taking about?! That’s the concern. Will these cars be able to get all passengers from origin to destination safely 100 percent of the time no matter what the external or outside influence present at the time? How, for example, will inclement weather affect self-operation? What about tire failure? How about avoiding any and all obstacles, whatever these are or whatever their form? You get the idea.

Before hitting the streets, robocars will be pre-approved for use – they’ll have to be. If not, not a single one will ever see time on the road. After all, the vehicle will be in control; not a driver. I hear-tell a steering wheel will be needed as a backup, you know, just in case. With no driver, though, is there even a need? Just asking.

I’m also under the impression that these cars might be moving about sans any passengers on board. Hypothetically speaking, a person may be on their way to work and request one to arrive at their home at a specific time. To illustrate further, at some remote location, an on-call or on-demand car may be parked. A request is received, the engine starts, and off it goes, all on its own. Of course, via the requester’s mobile device, constant updates will be provided regarding the car’s whereabouts. Right to the minute, the car arrives, waiting for the person making the request to board. Once in and taking the rider to their workplace, the occupant exits the vehicle after which the autonomous conveyance is now ready to accept its next assignment. This once was the stuff of science fiction. Now, it’s closer to being fact – science or otherwise.

Conditions quite common in the current driving environment are congestion, gridlock and delay. How will this be dealt with? Will a capability be in place to allow car (and occupant) to recognize where traffic is problematic? The assumption is it will. This being the case such cars may automatically choose a different routing to take to avoid problem areas. Then again, with autonomous automobility, travel on roadways may allow separation between cars immediately ahead and immediately following to be less, presumably, resulting in a more efficient operating platform. One wonders if there will be a need for lanes even.

All things considered, regarding the turn auto development takes (whatever that happens to be), it is imperative environmental considerations not take a back seat.

MUTCD_R3-18.svg[1]Time will tell.

– Alan Kandel