Way back in the 1950s, writers for such publications as Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated liked to speculate on what the future might hold for the automotive world. Stories about flying cars periodically hit those magazines’ pages. So did predictions of nuclear-powered automobiles. Another staple of the what-might-happen category was the driverless car.
Though flying cars never took off, working examples have gone on sale recently. Nuclear power never made it under car hoods. But as for cars that drive themselves, various experiments in recent years have demonstrated their possibilities. Google, for one, has been involved in some highly publicized test runs of cars without human drivers.
Cultural observers, on the other hand, have long wondered whether people would really be interested in cars that drive without human intervention, even if the technology proves to be entirely reliable.
Certainly, leaning back in your seat for a quiet nap while traveling on the Interstate from Chicago to Los Angeles sounds tempting. Long, tedious hours behind the wheel on dull expressways—that isn’t the kind of driving most motorists enjoy.
After leaving the off-ramp and heading for rural two-lanes, on the other hand, it’s not at all clear how many of us would continue to favor leaving the driving to a computer, regardless of how proficient that machine has become.
Among those taking an interest in the concept today is John Maddox, an associate administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As reported by the Detroit News, Maddox was the keynote speaker at the first Driverless Car Summit, held over two days in Detroit in mid-June 2012.
“Human error is the critical reason for 93 percent of crashes,” Maddox told the audience at the Summit. Because some 33,000 Americans are killed each year in auto crashes, “human error” is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths annually.
“We now have an opportunity to do something about” those fatality statistics, Maddox advised the audience. “Our goal should be crashless cars.”
In Maddox’s view, “automation can help us get to the next steep decline in the fatality rate.” By automation, he’s referring to automobiles that can function without the driver—the element responsible for so many fatalities. For that reason, NHTSA is studying and gathering data on the practical prospects for “crashless” driverless cars.
Organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Driverless Car Summit calls for such vehicles to be on sale by 2022.