We all value the ability to get into our cars and go where we want, when we want – it is a wonderful freedom. On the spur of the moment we can decide to visit friends or family even if they are miles away, or we can embark on a cross-country trip, and no permission is ever required. Unfortunately, the freedoms that we normally associate with vehicle ownership are destined to become historical anecdotes with the advent of technologies that will turn the car of the future into a centrally managed, driverless, drone vehicle.
The technologies that will be used in making the car of the future were on display during DARPA’s Grand Challenges. Funded by American taxpayers, these events awarded millions of dollars to researchers who successfully endowed their vehicles with the ability to autonomously drive down rural and urban roads. The technologies that allowed “Stanley” and “Boss” to win the DARPA challenges are being cost-reduced and commercialized for eventual deployment into all automobiles.
Autonomous vehicles require the marriage of “drive-by-wire” and external sensor technologies. Drive-by-wire technologies have been around for years. With drive-by-wire, the driver’s inputs are merely recommendations and it is the on-board computer that makes the final decisions. For example, modern anti-lock brakes can apply and release braking pressure under computer control. The throttle pedals on most cars are now electronic – the pedals no longer connect directly to the fuel system. Finally, the mechanical link to the steering wheel will soon be removed with the introduction of steer-by-wire, something Nissan is promising to do within the next year.
External sensor technologies allow the car computer to learn about its environment. Sensors include radars, cameras, ultrasonic sensors and LIDAR (laser-based range detection). These sensors, when combined with drive-by-wire and advanced computer software, will allow the car of the future to navigate without any driver input.
Consider that Lexus introduced a self-parking car way back in 2006. Ford and other manufacturers have since followed Lexus’ lead. In order to park, the on-board computer takes control of the steering and uses ultrasonic sensors and cameras to navigate into a parking spot. Audi has taken it one step further with the recent demonstration of their autopilot technology that allows a car to autonomously drive through a parking garage to locate a free parking space, park itself and then turn itself off.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz E63 packs a host of sensors including 3-D and infrared cameras, ultrasonic sensors and front and rear-facing radars. These sensors allow the E63’s computer to detect potential collisions with pedestrians and other cars. If a collision is likely, the computer immediately takes control of the throttle and brakes. The system also controls steering, a feature that allows the E63 to follow other cars in front of it including steering around corners. Acura’s “Lane Keeping Assist System” provides limited hands-free driving by nudging the steering wheel to keep the car between the lines when traveling at highway speed. Audi’s “Traffic Jam Assist” feature completely controls a vehicle in stop-and-go traffic and allows autonomous merging into traffic while avoiding obstacles.
Hands-free, self-driving cars are coming. In fact, Google has already deployed driverless cars in the U.S. for research and development purposes. Some years ago, Google hired the leader of the Stanford team that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, Sebastian Thrun, to run the project. Google’s fleet of cars has already amassed over 300,000 “autonomous-driving miles” on public roads. Four U.S. states have permitted driverless cars and more will follow. (Why is Google interested in self-driving cars? Speculation is that time not spent driving is time spent clicking on their ads.)
Self-driving cars will sell. According to Car & Driver magazine, 37% of drivers would buy an autonomous car if price was not a factor. Over time, the price premium will become less of an issue due to economies of scale. Ultimately, driverless cars will be the only type available on dealer lots. In the future, the idea of “driving a car” will strike most people as dangerous and absurd. Cars will simply get from point A to point B on their own – turning, braking and accelerating as required. But the next phase of the driverless car is quite sinister and results from the marriage of computerized car control and wireless communications.
Wireless communications are now of great interest to car manufacturers. Filip Brabec, Product Planning Manager at Audi, recently told Road & Track magazine that, after fuel efficiency, “The second big thing we’re going to be looking at is the connected trends. Cars are going to be seamlessly connected to their environments. We really see the years focusing on connecting the car to the rest of the world. And it’s going to be a cellular connection; it’s going to be Wi-Fi; it’s going to be all the different facets that we have there.”
Consider that GM’s OnStar has offered remote engine diagnostics and GPS vehicle tracking for years. OnStar also allows cars to be remotely shut-down on command, a feature that is theoretically reserved for cars that are reported stolen. Furthermore, in-car microphones allow for two-way audio communication between drivers and the OnStar monitoring center. Recently, a car magazine editor was astonished to find his privacy violated when, during an enthusiastic drive up a twisty mountain road, the OnStar center initiated a real-time conversation to determine if he needed assistance. (In the future, the uninvited voice may very well be that of a policeman with accusations of reckless driving.)
Wireless communications will also be used to update car software. In a recent review by Road & Track of the Tesla Model S, the car manufacturer’s headquarters “remotely spotted a problem, and pushed a software update through the Model S’ standard 3G cellular connection.” So, the capabilities of a car today may not be the same as tomorrow and there is little doubt that upgrades will be done without the owner’s knowledge.
The marriage of computerized car control and wireless communications will lead to the creation of the Mobility Grid (in the context of cities, the catch phrase is “Smart Cities”). The Mobility Grid will become a national, state-operated, computer network that will be used to achieve an Orwellian level of vehicular control and information sharing. The connection of individual cars to the grid will provide opportunities to direct and manage individual movement and invade personal privacy in ways that the people at OnStar can only presently dream about.
Research and development into grid-connected cars is now underway. For example, Car & Driver recently described a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) project involving 3,000 motorists in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The motorists’ cars have been fitted with car-to-car Wi-Fi communications with the purported intent of reducing collisions. In order to accomplish this, the cars share identification, location and speed information with one another. Furthermore, the DOT is examining the means to allow the cars to communicate with cell phones carried by nearby pedestrians in order to avoid car-pedestrian collisions.
It is important to note that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices continually broadcast unique identifiers, called MAC addresses. Using these unique MAC addresses, government-operated roadside sensors might be used to track motorists as they travel down the road. Car & Driver reported on such a scheme proposed by the University of Maryland whereby the transmission of every portable cellphone in a car could be discovered using roadside receivers. In the future, no car or cellphone will be allowed to hide.
The magazine claims that, depending upon the results of these efforts, automotive wireless information-sharing systems could be mandatory in U.S. cars by 2020. The Canadian federal and provincial governments will surely follow the lead of their American counterparts. “Still worried your Droid will be appropriated by The Man for traffic logging?”, asked the author at Car & Driver, “Write your congressional representative.” A fine idea until one realizes that it is the politicians who will, one day, be compelled to make these technologies legally mandatory in all vehicles – for safety reasons, of course.
In the not-too-distant future, the control of every automobile on the road will be handed over to the state-run Mobility Grid. The grid, managed as an extension to government policy and reflecting the demands of special interest groups and state-connected corporations (the “transportation-industrial complex”), will be used to not only track and control vehicle movements, but also to manage and mold the transportation choices of citizens. Privacy will suffer as sensors both inside and outside of vehicles (namely video cameras and microphones) will make their data available for recording and inspection.
Thales, the French defence, aerospace and ground transportation conglomerate with more than 60,000 employees, is on the forefront of this nightmarish future. It has been advancing its VivaCity initiative whereby a “seamless integrated transport policy … blurs the boundary between public and private, and which enables greater use of … car sharing, ad-hoc cycle hire and use of publicly available electric vehicles.” What this means is that private cars will effectively become public property as compulsory car sharing is rolled-out. The average citizen will have no recourse because the argument will be made that full occupancy is required to prevent Mother Earth from dying of man’s excessive CO2 emissions.
Thales’ vision also includes the marriage of the grid with “multi-agency crisis management and control capability, where city authorities effectively coordinate emergency services and civil security forces to efficiently manage their emergency and disaster response.” Not only will cars be tracked and monitored, but in an emergency (real, or not) it will be possible for police to preclude cars from going into certain areas, or to force cars onto certain roads. Also, it will be possible to remotely shut down cars en-masse should the need arise (like OnStar on steroids). A shelter-in-place command, like that recently given to Boston, Massachusetts, residents via the television and radio, might be enforced by sending a centrally transmitted “engine off” instruction to vehicles.
Furthermore, citizens will be able to forget about driving away to escape any type of authority. For example, police chases will become a thing of the past – the police will simply request that the doors remain locked and that the cars come to them. In fact, during a time of crisis, cars might be remotely commandeered by authorities. Nearby drive-by-wire cars might simply start-up and drive themselves to more deserving civil servants.
The Mobility Grid will also prevent citizens from going places for which they are not approved, such as visiting certain parks or driving to resorts hosting G20 conferences. Individuals who are put on travel blacklists may be permanently excluded from taking their cars into certain jurisdictions or across provincial borders. Personal trips might need to be justified relative to the CO2 emissions that are created. For example, parents who wish to drive Junior to a baseball game in a neighbouring city might not be allowed to go at all. After all, the car of the future will require approval even to leave a person’s driveway. No approval – no trip.
Thales also promotes the use of data mining – the computerized filtering of massive amounts of data for the creation of “hits” useful to bureaucrats. Their website claims, “Analysis of all the data made available by closed integration of transport and security systems allows operators and administrators to better plan, operationally and strategically, for the future development of the city. ” The implications are ominous. In the future, private spheres will be invaded and all movements will be tracked, cross-referenced and mined for hits for whatever purposes the central planners, security forces and special interest groups and corporations might devise.
You may want to keep your old-fashioned, drive-by-human car for as long as possible because the car of the future is a drone car. Want a ride?