OnQ Blog

While you weren’t paying attention, your car learned how to drive

16 Jun 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Jean Jennings has covered the automotive industry for more than 30 years; she’s the founder and editor-in-chief of JeanKnowsCars.com and former editor of Automobile magazine. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

As a professional driver and automotive journalist, I’ve spent three decades driving the highest-performance cars in the world. So you might think the idea of autonomous cars would chill me to the bone. In reality, it’s quite the opposite.

I haven’t been much of a passenger since I learned to drive in the Andes mountains of Ecuador, where past driver errors are marked by small white crosses. Once experienced, driving became my passion, and, eventually, my life. In time, stupidly fast driving gave way to precision driving—perfect shifting, flawless braking, and carving neatly through traffic with no large disruptions to the overall flow of the cosmos. I still love to drive.

So what happens when cars drive me? I don’t have to look past the cars I test and write about every day to find part of the answer. The technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is already here, trickling down from luxury brands and forward thinkers, such as Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, to such basic transportation as the 2016 Chevrolet Spark minicar. Between cameras, sonar, radar, and satellites in the sky, you have already ceded the ability to be the master of your automotive domain—whether you know it or not. Technology available on cars today applies the brakes if you don’t stop fast enough, keeps you in your lane when you’re merging unsafely, and shows you the top of your car, the side of your car, or what’s in the ditch when you’re turning right.

2020, the year by which many automakers have pledged to make autonomous cars a reality, is only five years away. Not only will autonomous technology take the wheel, but it will also ensure that nobody will be injured or killed in one of these new cars. Volvo announced earlier this year that it’s going to test its active safety technology—which, among other features, will avoid imminent collisions—with a pilot fleet of 1,000 autonomous cars on public roads in Sweden and Norway. Nissan and Renault aim to have a complete autonomous-driving package on several of their models by 2020. And Mercedes-Benz already offers Intelligent Drive, a feature that lets the car steer itself in traffic jams, on its upper-end E-Class and S-Class models

At the same time, some level of automation will become mandatory. As of May 2018, rearview cameras will be required on all passenger cars, according to regulations set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Automakers are rapidly moving to get them on new models already. As cameras and sensors become common on future cars, safety regulations are sure to keep pace; for example, the NHTSA is already working to create standards for vehicle-to-vehicle communications and other active-safety technologies. A few more strokes of the legislative pen, and your time with your hands squarely at 10 and 2 could very well be a thing of the past. No more just cruising the roadways at any speed you choose; you could find yourself relieved of the ability to break the speed limit.

That means many drivers will also be relieved of their disgraceful incompetence. Imagine no more tailgaters or freeway lane weavers, and no one staring at their phone at 80 mph. Imagine no more highway vigilantes—the brake spiker, the lane blocker—self-appointed to punish the “bad” drivers. That alone should be enough motivation to push forward with the fully autonomous car.

Think about this: A few months ago in Michigan, there was a 100-plus-car pileup during a snowstorm on I-94. After the investigation, 58 drivers were issued citations for driving too fast for conditions. People no longer know about closing rate and safe following distance. They’re on their phones; they’re not even looking. This story would have been quite different if their cars had been enabled with active cruise control and pre-collision braking.

Removing control from people who can’t bring themselves to pay attention at the wheel is a frequently cited reason for the rise of the autonomous car, but there are other, more-compelling reasons. Most important are those people who, due to age and disability, can’t drive at all, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.

I have a blind nephew who counts on spotty public transportation and charity rides from friends and relatives. My 97-year-old mother-in-law still drives—“but only during the day”—as does my 88-year-old aunt. Both women live on their own and had the freedom of their cars all of their lives; they don’t want to give that up and burden their busy families. Autonomous cars will give them back their freedom.

Those of us who are interested and able can always find a place to drive fast. People who want to drive, and who have learned to drive well, won’t ever have to give up that privilege entirely. We have the choice to go to track days at a racetrack or to join a racing or private club.

But on the road, autonomous driving is what will save us from ourselves.