Driverless cars -- vehicles that will get themselves down the road with no human interaction -- were exactly the same kind of fantasy that the flying car was in the 1950s. Magazines like Popular Science showed us, with elaborately illustrated covers, that driverless cars were just around the corner. In no time, we'd be hurtling through space at 75 miles an hour playing dominoes while an automaton did the driving. Well, 50 years later, we might finally be getting what we were promised.
The question is, how comfortable are you with the technology, and how much do you trust car companies and Silicon Valley giants to provide it? You might trust Google to deliver your Nigerian scam email, but do you trust it to deliver you safely through traffic? "It is clear that the powerhouses of Silicon Valley may be key players in the future of the automotive industry," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist with the MIT AgeLab, and associate director of The New England University Transportation Center at MIT. "The degree to which we will trust these technology companies to produce automated vehicles over traditional legacy manufacturers is not clear."
Those are the kinds of questions that the MIT AgeLab is asking you to answer in a survey on autonomous technology, as part of the NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference on May 26. The survey hopes to provide some understanding of just how much we trust Silicon Valley, as well as traditional auto manufacturers to get us safely down the road with little to no interaction from a human driver.
The conference is a partnership between the MIT AgeLab and the New England Motor Press Association, and the topic this year focuses on the intersection of technology and design. With autonomous technology looming on the horizon, how is it going to impact the design of the cars we drive?
In the immediate postwar years, driverless technology seemed like something we would experience in no time.
The October, 1967 issue of Popular Science showed us one vision of the future, the Amazing Urbmobile, a study by the Cornell Aeronautic Laboratory, funded by $100,000 in 1967 money (approximately $253 trillion in 2016 dollars, give or take a few bucks), provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"You feel the car decelerate as you look up from your paper," reads the article, "You're gliding into the 5th Street Station. "You fold your paper as the Urbmobile comes to a gentle, automatic stop. You step out and head for your office a few blocks away. As you leave, your driverless Urbmobile pulls out, and heads back to the main track. Fifteen minutes later, it slides into a parking stall 12 miles down from the downtown congestion."
Urbmobile promised to combine the freedom of a personal car with the best features of mass transit, equipping the car with guide wheels that would run on a railroad track. It was about as technologically advanced as you could get in 1967, when nobody could even envision technology that would brake a car in an emergency faster than a human driver could.
"The myth about automation is that as the level of human responsibility decreases so does the need for education," says Reimer. "Given that we are rapidly increasing the level of automated vehicle technology it is an open question as to where people are going to learn how to appropriately use it."
The idea of using the massive processing power of a computer to drive a car autonomously wasn't unheard of in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, the UK's Transport Research Laboratory was using the technology to send a Citroen DS down the road with no human interaction. But the size of the computer required to make it happen made it fantasy. The machine in the Citroen's back seat took up the entire passenger area.
Do you trust a company that can't seem to make a wire that lasts more than six months to get you safely home from the office in the snow? Are you willing to turn over control of your car to a robot overlord? Are you ready to get trained on how your autonomous car works from the same people who showed you how to pair your phone at the car dealership?
Let us know. The survey is up and running, and won't take more than five minutes to complete. It asks for your zip code to see if there are any regional trends, but beyond that, the survey is completely anonymous. We'll have results after May 26.