Self-driving cars: your ride to the future

So, a week ago, Ford put this out there – 2021 is when their self-driving cars will come to market. That’s five years from now. Is five years enough? They sure think so.

Ford is not the first auto manufacturer to set down markers. Elon Musk, the rockstar of the scientific community recently announced Part Deux of his plan for world domination. At least, Musk has his feet firmly on the ground in terms of the time his plan will take to come to fruition. The general sense is that five years is way too less time for cars to start operating without intermittent human intervention. Guess what, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Just to be sure, the cars I am referring to here are not the self-driving ones that are popping up around the world, which still have a person behind the wheel just in case the tech messes up. I am talking about hands-off, purely machine driven cars – a point of no return basically.

Also, the ever controversial Uber wants to be dead centre of this self-driving revolution (tyres turning – revolution, get it?) and they are already doing a lot about it. With a $300 million deal with Volvo in the bag, they are looking to beat Google and everyone else in getting first to the market with driverless cars.

Airbus has gone a couple levels ‘above.’ They recently announced that they will soon begin testing flying taxis. Yes! Remember the visuals from them sci-fi movies? Compact pods traversing across huge metropolises with shiny and designer skyscrapers? The generation X and Y folks will probably miss the ride (pun intended), but it all looks pretty far out. Even though self-driving cars (strangely) make sense in this age (though only in first world countries), flying taxis as promised by Airbus would be quite out of place in the transport infrastructure we have right now. So, for the benefit for folks with really short attention spans (just me), let’s stick to cars for now.

My two cents

Personally, I could really use these rides. I cannot remember routes to save my life (meet the Clarks). Inside of my small and ordinary world, if I held a contest for the most disruptive technology solutions of my generation, Google Maps would come a close second to the Internet (c’mon, there really are no arguments that the Internet is the single biggest invention since whatever was previously the most important one?). Ever since I got hold of a smartphone, G Maps has been saving me from certain embarrassment if I had to ask my friends for directions to a place I visited just a few days ago (shout-out to my wife who understands that it’s tough for me!).

Now, can you imagine what a self-driving car pre-equipped with maps will do for people like me? Here, I’ll make it simple for you – this is exactly how I would feel about it.

Steve Carell

Surely we have to go a long way before self-driving cars have the cojones to pull away speedily on routes with less traffic. Will we still have normal cars with the regular people driving them? Will they be patient enough with the self-driving cars? And, what happens if one of the these cars gets hacked? And most importantly, the Top Gear lads go out of work?! There are just so many questions that need to be answered before we can realistically imagine a world where such cars are the norm.

Where’s the tech?!

So how does this thing really work? Two words – Artificial Intelligence (AI). So how do you explain AI? Two more words – Machine learning (ML). In simple terms, you incrementally feed the tech with relevant data, and the bot just teaches itself. I know, I know, this is just a one line summary and there is a whole lot going on behind the cooling fan. But hey, you get the point.

The principal protagonist (ML) in the magnum opus that is Artificial Intelligence (AI), is a true marvel. Although machine learning has been prime time geek stuff for years now, it’s first real moment in the sun was when Google’s AI bot defeated the top human player at a game called Go, which is purportedly more complex than chess (I wouldn’t know, really). But of course, there is a lot of difference between getting a move right on a cardboard game and accurately predicting the behaviour of obstacles on a road. You wouldn’t want the car to think of you as a pawn in a board game (although, be ready for it when the robots all rise up and blast us to kingdom come).

For the people who love their cars and don’t really want to part with a shit load of cash (do you really think the initial iterations of these automatic cars will come cheap?), companies like Cruise Automation have got your back (and front, with sensors). No, really! With their tech, you can convert a regular car into one with auto-pilot. But wait, auto-pilot does not mean that you get to take your eyes off the road and the bot takes care of the rest. Tesla will teslify testify to this.

Poor old Jared would know too.

Plus, your car might end up looking like it’s straight out of the Mad Max: Fury Road set, what with all the sensor tech.

self-driving cars

Self-driving trucks are coming too!

In all honesty, the possibilities of driverless cars are endless. Physically challenged persons no longer need to depend on the (pseudo) sympathy of others to get from A to B. Will the number of accidents come down with these cars? If nothing, at least the machines won’t drink drive and kill people! On a serious note, self-driving cars with over 90 percent precision would (probably) collectively fare better than how humans drive. Safe roads are the best!

Any last words?

I, for one, am a sucker for this technology, and can’t wait for it to hit mainstream. But let’s be realistic here. Unless I migrate to a developed country where the auto companies don’t have to install sensors in the tyres to account for potholes, I might not get to experience self-driving cars for a long long time. Sigh. But hey, you need someone to sit on the fence and applaud!

Even though I have touched on a lot of what self-driving cars entail, I pretty much glossed over the technical bits. Trust me, I’m the last person you would want explaining how shit works.

Finally, one piece of advice – Do not discuss with your boss with great fervor the benefits of self-driving cars. Trust me. Just don’t.

  • Deepshri

    That’s a good piece there. Gave me a pretty glimpse of that far away future (or may be not so far away after all). The thing that interests me most about these future driverless cars is that women won’t have to worry about abusive drunken drivers at least.

    • Thanks, Deepshri! And you’re right, safety for women is another win with these cars!