The future is happening in Pittsburgh
Back in the 1970s, I think we all assumed that certainly there’d be flying cars by 2013, if soylent green hadn’t taken over. Okay, so innovation has not really kept up with the imagination of Back to the Future. The improvements in automobile technology in the past 40 years has mainly been in the areas of gas mileage, GPS, anti-lock breaking, air bags, and mini-van movie screens. Oh, and advanced cup holder technology? We haz it.
While most of the futuristic movies (from Back to the Future to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to Total Recall to The Jetsons) all assumed that cars would fly one day, what they missed on was their assumption that a human being would still have to be behind the wheel. The real future is not in flying cars (well, maybe long after we’re all gone) but in driverless cars. No more drunk drivers. No more texting while driving. No turning the wrong way down a one-way street. No more high-speed police chases. You just get in your car, kick back, and read a book or watch a movie or take a nap, while a computer does all the heavy lifting. And it turns out that this kind of innovation is not coming from Detroit or Tokyo or Berlin or even Silicon Valley. No, it’s coming from Pittsburgh, and faster than you think.
Yesterday was sort of the Kitty Hawk moment for driverless cars, as the brainiac mad scientists from Carnegie Mellon demonstrated that their driverless car — a very normal looking 2011 Cadillac SRX — could negotiate congestion and highway traffic while safely changing lanes and merging during a challenging 33-mile drive from Cranberry, Pa., to Pittsburgh International Airport. And there were no crash test dummies riding inside. The white-knuckled passengers were U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Barry Schoch, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A human was in the driver’s seat as a safety precaution, but all of the driving was done by Carnegie Mellon’s innovative software, relying on inputs from radars, lidars (is that a thing?), and infrared cameras.
In addition to controlling the steering, speed and braking, the computers also detect and avoid obstacles in the road, including traffic cones and barrels, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, pausing until they are safely out of the way. The systems provide audible warnings of obstacles and communicate vehicle status to its passengers using a “human-like” voice. This Cadillac SRX also can communicate with instrumented traffic lights and other vehicles equipped with wireless communication devices to enable cooperation.
No word on whether it can lay on the horn, ride the bumpers of cars that cut it off, or flip the occasional bird to moronic driverless cars around it with sub-par operating systems.
Raj Rajkumar, who directs CMU’s U.S. Department of Transportation-funded transportation research center, says the main goal of CMU’s driverless car is to reduce accidents, thereby decreasing injuries and fatalities. “The car’s electronics are simply more reliable than people and will protect drivers from their own bad behavior as well as those of others, such as drinking or texting,” More than 40,000 Americans lose their lives each year in traffic accidents. Rajkumar suggests that self-driving vehicles will begin to be commercially available around 2020 as near-term costs as well as social and legal concerns are addressed. In other words, the insurance companies have to decide who will be liable when a car’s computer gets a virus and plows into a house. Details, details….
I know there are a lot of people out there who actually enjoy the activity of driving. I imagine that there will be the opportunity for human override as this technology is unveiled. But doesn’t that defeat their purpose? And can you imagine those cross-country trips where the people are sleeping in every car you pass? How weird is that going to be? I guess it will be no weirder than it was in the 1980s to see someone talking on phones in their cars. Ah yes, that there Motorola bag phone was some pretty freaky Buck Rogers shit in its day.
So what do you think? Do you embrace the future? Bring on the computers! I can play Words with Friends all the way to work!
Or are you going to go there kicking and screaming and demanding your right to be able to change lanes abruptly and without signaling…? Because this is America, damn it!