Every day, millions of people of every age and background put themselves in an incredibly dangerous object and operate it at high speeds around masses of other people.
Driving may be a practical, fairly rote daily activity, but driving, all things told, is essentially the operation of, as technology writer Simon Bisson puts it,
"...a tonne and a half of steel and high explosives..."
Bisson, in a recent piece for ZDNet has joined the chorus of voices plugged into the tech and analysis world who are predicting that smart cars will have a large, perhaps even unprecedented, impact of the lives of coming generations.
They have already affected this one: we talk to our cars, link them up with satellite technology for directions, use computer-linked camera systems to see behind us, access online entertainment via a computerized sound console, and utilize any number of other "intelligent" systems whether we realize or not. True, the roads are still full of cars whose primary purpose is as a transportation vehicle and whose primary control is in the hands of its operation; but these roles are shifting as new developments enable a shift in how we think about driving, not to mention how we drive. Or don't.
Our grandchildren may very well live in a world where steering wheels are a quaint, faint memory of past days when people drove cars and not the opposite.
The concept of autonomous automobiles is deeply embedded in culture, literature, and speculative analysis. Most people know that while driving is inherently dangerous, it's people who tend to be behind the mistakes that lead to most accidents, not technology. So the idea of an autonomous car is hardly fearsome: rather it is will hopefully save lives.
Major cities and hubs of industry around the world are increasingly feeling the burden of over-congested roads and over-polluted skies. The free-form method by which modern commuters approach cities has proven more and more impractical. As with many advances in social and technological realms: the public needs a practical reason to be convinced to adopt a new method of doing things; particularly when something as basic and common as driving. As an NBC article notes, the ability to solve the issue of traffic congestion is considered to be a large part of how smart cars will see increased prominence.
According to that piece and other sources; it's a few clever and efficient algorithms that will be behind smart cars' ability to communicate with each other, choose practical routes, and avoid basic hassles like idling and waiting in a turn lane.
Some companies have already taken steps towards smarter mass driving. For instance, UPS trucks program their routes in order to avoid left-hand turns so that the trucks spend significantly less time idling.
As ABC reported in 2007, three years after the policy implementation at UPS,
"...saved 28,541,472 million miles, and three million gallons of fuel."
And that's just from basic route-plotting changes that eliminated 90 percent of left-turns. Now imagine that automated systems can plot routes, organize caravans of cars that "communicate" with each other as they carry their passengers to similar destinations, and have technology that warns before possible collisions.
A safer, smoother world.