New Driverless Cars Will Allow For Ghostridin’ The Whips…Someday (Audio)

The proliferation of technology into all aspects of life is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. Companies investing in “smart home” technologies are making it easier for people to turn off their ovens remotely or to turn on their central air while on their commute home. “Smart clothes” are making it easier for our pants to tell us the same things our smartphones can. And now, it seems our cars won’t even need drivers.

Driverless cars have been a concept for some time. Formally known as “autonomous” vehicles, the technology involved has come a long way since the 1968 film The Love Bug, which starred a friendly Volkswagen Beetle who had a mind of its own. “Knight Rider,” Batman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and much more recently, the film I, Robot feature some adaptation of the concept, but only in dystopian, fantastical, and cartoon settings. Now, the conceptual frameworks behind those fictional characters are becoming steadfastly tangible in the real world. Google was recently in the news for launching its own self-driving car (it only goes 25 miles-per-hour) and now the University of Michigan has become a hotbed for automated-vehicle innovation.

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On this morning’s “All Tech Considered” program, NPR delivered a story about researchers who are taking the already existing driverless cars and driving them to the next step of the experiment. Researchers at the University of Michigan have constructed fake cities, including fake pedestrians, in order to test the vehicle’s ability to navigate simulated roads in the hopes that one day, probably decades away, the cars will become available for public consumption. Reporter Jason Margolis spent time with Ford as they tested prototypes on courses designed specifically with the driverless vehicle in mind.

M City is “a 32-acre testing ground at the University of Michigan. Fifteen companies — Ford, General Motors and Nissan among them — each paid $1 million to help build the facility, where they can now do research alongside university engineers and scientists,” according to Margolis. The manufactured city was designed with detail in mind, including “a stop sign tagged with graffiti and a small grated bridge.” Whether or not the robotic cars will notice such detail is besides the point; rather, the details are there to help the human mind accept the reality of such a progressive technology, and being surrounded by commonplace things like graffiti make that process smoother.

Perhaps it is that very notion – that the human mind needs to be re-formulated to accept the idea of a car driving without input from a human – that brings to question things like the potential danger in having such vehicles on the road. Surely, car accidents already happen at tragically alarming rates, almost always due to human error. Nevertheless, giving up that control of a technology with the responsibility of getting us places safely may prove to be too difficult for many to accept, but the same arguments were made about robot-assisted surgery, where machines are used to perform the finely tuned processes of surgery that are, generally thought, to be inherently human in concept. Those machines, particularly when it comes to pediatric and cardiological surgeries have been immensely successful.

If and when the day arrives that we have cars on the road which operate without much or any human input (Google says 2020), there will literally be technology on the road driving us, but also metaphorically. Is this technological step one too far? And, if this is just the next big thing, what’s the next next big thing?

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