The future is arriving quickly, at least for those who grew up with the Jetsons and for whom the idea of an intelligent car remains tucked away with the light sabers in the sci-fi regions of the cerebral cortex.
Yet, here it comes, a product of a joint effort of big business and big government. If it works, it will save lives and put a feather in the caps of both frequently frowned-upon entities.
Already there are cars that can parallel park themselves. That’s a Nobel-caliber achievement on its own, but there is more to come. Plans are for cars that actually communicate with each other, perceiving risks and responding more quickly than human reflexes allow.
The technology represents a major change in the government’s goals and in functions of car design. Government regulations today are aimed at making car crashes survivable. Intelligent cars will avoid them in the first place. It’s a land-based sea change.
Imagine a car that, through signals it emits and receives, “notices” a vehicle in your blind spot and prevents you from pulling out in front of it. Or one that picks up a sudden drop in speed of the car ahead and instantly applies the brakes.
It will be a different day in driving – one, no doubt, that some motorists who love being in control will regret. But estimates are that, when fully developed and in use, intelligent cars could prevent 80 percent of accidents that aren’t caused by drunken drivers or mechanical failures. That represents a huge saving in the cost of repairs to cars and to bodies. People who otherwise would have died in an accident will go home to their families and back to work. Developments like those will have multiple benefits that should include significantly lowering car insurance premiums.
But there are hurdles. It will take several years before the technology is installed in vehicles and it could take decades before all cars on the road are equipped. Privacy and security issues need to be sorted out.
It will also be essential to ensure that the technology works reliably all the time, because once people think they don’t have to focus on the road, they will start texting or browsing the Internet or watching movies.
The technology will also increase the price of cars, but if the $100 to $200 in additional costs predicted by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America is accurate, it will be a bargain. Government officials aren’t offering an estimate on the likely additional cost.
It is encouraging that government and carmakers are working together on this project. It is important for the safety of motorists, but also to drain some of the poison out of the lie that government is nothing but a burden to business and to all Americans, generally. Sometimes it is, to be sure, but it is capable of important developments that benefit Americans. This is one of them – an important, complex effort that requires, and seems to be producing, close and respectful collaboration. And that’s not science fiction.