Self-driving and flying cars have been romanticized and fictionalized, almost from the time the first Model-T rolled off of the assembly line. Who hasn’t longed for a car like KITT they could signal to come pick them up at the front of a packed holiday shopping mall when they had to park in the farthest lot? Certainly at one time or another we’ve all visualized our own boring cars as Jetson-esque “bubble” cars that would take off and allow us to fly up and away from 5pm rush hour traffic.
Fiction is now reality. And, while we’re still working out all of the kinks, it won’t be long until several of the cars stuck in traffic with us won’t have anyone sitting behind the wheel. In fact, most of those cars won’t even have steering wheels. And the first flying car completed its first solo flight in Israel in November of 2016 (but with a price tag of $14 million, civilian applications will be difficult to justify anytime soon).
I recently had the opportunity to drive a highly advanced vehicle with all of the safety features (self-braking, lane guidance, speed control) and auto-steer. While it is a completely disconcerting feeling not to be in control, it’s easy to see how the benefits of self-driving cars will far outweigh the fear of not having human intervention in the driving process. But that’s not to say that the fear is not legitimate. The anatomy of modern cars is becoming much different from the cars on which we learned to drive. Where once steering wheels attached directly to a vehicle’s axle and wheels, these physical tethers are phasing out. Sensors and computer chips read the direction of the wheel and send signals to the tires. So, if for some reason the electronic system controlling your steering goes haywire, or worse, gets hacked, you’ll have no control over the direction of your car. But it’s not just the steering—it’s every system in the car, from the radio to the brakes—that’s vulnerable to interference.
Just as the proliferation of computers spawned legions of people looking for ways of attacking those systems, so too is the advent of IoT technologies in cars bringing forward those seeking to find a way in. In 2015, Chrysler got a wake up call to this very issue when a pair of hackers remotely took control of a Jeep, leading to a recall of 1.4 million vehicles. Luckily, these hackers were only proving a point in a controlled setting to illustrate a critical security flaw. Had they been nefarious in their intentions, who knows the havoc they may have been able to wreak.
The good news is that cyber security and the protection of those things vulnerable to outside manipulation is growing quickly. Closed-systems are being utilized to negate outside interference, especially in the case of cars. As is now the case in Chrysler’s Jeep, someone would have to be physically inside an individual car to manipulate its systems.
Weigh those risks against the multitude of benefits, however, and it’s easy to see why we’re speeding toward this new age in travel. Aside from the obvious road safety benefits (cars that avoid each other, eliminating the dangers of distracted driving), self-driving cars open up a whole new world of possibilities that will change the way we live.
Why buy a car when you can, at a moment’s notice, summon a driverless car to take you wherever you need to go? Imagine the cost savings (no car payments, no insurance, no gas). And think about those people who are homebound or restricted to their immediate neighborhoods, because old age or some type of physical or mental disability doesn’t allow them to have a driver’s license. It will open a whole new world to them.
So, while we may not be able to emulate George Jetson for years to come, we can soon see cars with KITT-like capabilities (even if we’d have to imagine ourselves as David Hasselhoff). Now, if they could just find a way use rocket propulsion a la James Bond’s Astin Martin, driverless cars or not, driving would get really fun!
Last modified: October 26, 2017