Why the driverless-car is being hobbled by science fiction

Why today's popularist vision of tomorrow's autonomous car is limited by having stepped off yesterday's science fiction idea of the driverless car

The idea of the driverless-car, the autonomous car, is omnipresent today in the automotive industry. Conferences live by it.  Suppliers toil to make the cleverness in it.  Government bodies fund research into it.  And car companies excite us with it.  At last month’s Frankfurt Auto Show there were many concept cars, such as the svelte Audi Aicon, presented as being autonomous.  

Normally these autonomous concept cars are mono-space forms with large wheels pushed to the corners and are shown zooming on highways with earnest thirty-somethings facing one another, tablet in hand, and this vision has now perhaps become the established automotive cliche of the twenty-teens.  

Mercedes F-105

In reality the autonomous car is decades away from being realised in anything approaching such forms or application.  Cliche or otherwise, these typically appealing but superficial designs, and the way they are presented, are misleading in how they define our wider understanding of what the driverless car will be — and thus are hobbling the collective advancement of the autonomous car.  And in a small way we have science fiction to thank for this.

The idea of the driverless car is not modern science fiction, it is ancient — whether we point to the mythical magic carpet or think of the prosaic horse and cart that followed the tradesman or farmer unaided.  But in modern times, where normal cars are ubiquitous, we have mostly American science fiction as a reference point: the autonomous cars of Total Recall, The Fifth Element, Batman, I Robot, Minority Report, Demolition Man - and even Herbie and Knight Rider before them; high speed machines all of them. Just as the visions that predated them in comics also depicted high-speed autonomous car travel.  

So concept cars designed to be autonomous at the beginning of the 21st century logically step-off this late twentieth century, science fiction based, idea of the driverless car.  Yet the reality of the autonomonus car, we think, is set to be very different; a lot more interesting, if perhaps a little bit less sexy… 

Our research in this area with car and car supplier brands points to driverless cars that offer more tangible benefits for specific usages realised by markedly different designs to the cars on our streets today. To start with they will drive slowly and not on inter-city highways; we will see dedicated autonomous-car only park-houses that enable the user to essentially drop their car at the entrance and leave their car to park itself — with no doors needing to open and the opportunity to work with other cars, they will need only half the space cars use today to the benefit of parking capacity and cost as well as time. Similarly in the short term we will see cars slowly driving themselves away for nocturnal service attention and returning to their on-driveway park-spot ready for the morning commute.  These, along with a host of other low-speed uses, will much change the way we gain value from cars and will also make the biggest impact on the nature of 21st century autonomous car design. 

Ultimately people will make high-speed intercity travel in an autonomous car and realise today’s sci-fi based autonomous car dream - but we hope that some of the genuinely exciting design implications that AI is bringing to the car might be soon envisaged in the public domain in forms that better realise the many significant ways that the autonomous car will improve our lives in the future. To do this will help the wider focus of all parties engaged in this exciting new area to best progress from fiction to reality, to better see a more clear vision of useful transportation instead of a popularist vision of tomorrow based on yesterday's science fiction.  

by Sam Livingstone


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