October is proving to be a busy month in the driverless car arena. While Nissan Motor Company unveiled its new Autonomous Drive Leaf electric car at CEATEC in Japan, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced his company is working on a self-driving vehicle that could be available within the next three years.
While most analysts say it will take 10 to 15 years before self-driving cars become a mainstream reality, Nissan and Tesla already have plenty of competition. Daimler AG, among others, says it hopes to begin selling self-driving cars by the end of the decade, and Google’s driverless cars not only exist, they’ve driven over half a million miles with no accidents.
Google is also rumored to be close to a deal with Continental AG, a German automotive supplier that has relationships with virtually every major car company in North America, Germany and Japan.
A growing population, overcrowded roads, and the migration to cities, are all good reasons why driverless cars are here to stay, and why car manufacturers are watching this space closely. But for Google, the driverless car comes with an added bonus.
Google wants us to check our Gmail accounts, dig up that funny video on YouTube, connect with our colleagues and friends on Google+, Gchat during the work day, and most importantly, click on those targeted advertisements they bring us. We can’t—or at least we shouldn’t—do any of these things while we’re driving, which, incidentally, we spend roughly 18.5 hours per week doing.
Accessing and influencing where we drive has some pretty powerful implications too. Google Traffic Maps—which tracks how many Android phones are on a particular road at any given time—has already changed how and where we drive depending on the time of day, and driverless cars will essentially take out the middleman (us).
An automated future
Self-driving cars will free us up to tweet, post, read and work on the go, but there’s much more to it than that.
Driverless technology could significantly reduce the staggering number of people killed in car accidents, over a million worldwide each year. In a world without crashes, cars wouldn’t need tons of reinforced steel, excessive airbags and other features that make them so heavy, and by definition, lighter cars are more efficient cars. And it’s not just car accidents – rush hour traffic, hunting for parking spots, even traffic signals could go the way of the dinosaurs.
As smart connected products become more pervasive, automating more and more activities traditionally requiring a human hand, there’s plenty of questions—technological, social, legal, and even ethical—that will need to be answered.
But for me, the true question is this: How will we as a species adapt to this technology? How will we use all our new-found free time? Will we advance in a positive, productive way or end up in a WALL.E-like tech-fueled complacency?
Stay tuned: in the second part of this two-part series, we’ll get into the grittier details of self-driving cars, including how they work, data collection, and the implications for both businesses and consumers.
Photo credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images