Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Car of the Future

You probably don't know me well if you don't realize that I was one of the first to put money down on a car that didn't exist yet - the Chevy Volt - and have since trumpeted both the praise I have for the car, as well as some of the "opportunities" we'll call them.  It is a point of pride to me to be a part of pioneering EV technology; it was not an economical decision by any means, it was 100% the draw of a cool technology that could change the world.  I fell in love the minute I first saw the concept car, and even though the real thing would not be rolled out in my state until years later, I had to get one.    

I've received tons of compliments and questions about the car, especially in the first couple years; people in the cars next to me at a stop light would signal for me to roll down my window to interview me, and I'd get stopped in parking lots all the time.  I'll never forget one taxi driver who asked me, "Does it really get awesome mpg?  How can you trust the numbers the computer gives you?"  I took a peek at my dashboard and retorted, "Well, it's been over 1400 miles since I last filled my tank, and it only holds about 9 gallons.  You do the math."  The taxi driver was so delighted, he screamed gleefully, "That's my next car!" as the light turned green and we drove off.  Sometimes people complimented me on the styling of the car, not even recognizing that it was electric.  When I told them that, they were dumbfounded!  Most EVs at the time looked like dinky capsules with googly alien eyes for headlights.  

A lot of people didn't understand the difference between the Volt's hybrid technology, or range-extended EV technology as GM tried to sell it, and that of a common Prius.  The difference, I'd have to explain over and over again, is that you can hardly ever drive a Prius for any useful distance at any reasonable speed, without the gas engine kicking on.  With the Volt, I get through most weekdays without ever using gas; the gas is there only as a backup if I run out
of electricity, and for longer trips.  While many of my eco-friendly technophile friends were gunning for the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car with a lower price-point, I knew that wouldn't do it for me because my family lives a little over 100 miles away, and the charging station at the midpoint was not installed yet (although I knew it was coming... some day).  To me, the Leaf was a great commuter car, but could not suffice as the only car of a household.  I faced a lot of criticism from the EV-purests; GM was, after all, the company reputed for killing the EV1 in the 90's, so who's to say the Volt would ever even come to fruition?  Plus, the Volt didn't qualify yet for HOV lane access, a privilege granted to the Prius and two other inferior hybrids, and all electric vehicles.  My commute at the time didn't benefit from HOV lane access much, and I stood firm on patriotic and technologically sound principles that the Volt was the way to go.  I got the last laugh, of course, as Nissan Leafs failed to hold up in the scorching heat of Phoenix summers, and all my Leaf-fanatic friends lemon-lawed or ditched their cars at a huge loss very quickly, while I am still thrilled with the performance and battery life of my Volt.

I had done all the negotiations upfront through email with the dealer in California, and he even friended me on facebook.  It was nothing like a "normal" car buying experience.  I had customized what little options there were to choose from, and the Volt Advisor assigned to me provided updates on where it was in the process and shipping.  When I arrived at the dealership, I was greeted with familiarity and hugs, even though I had never met a soul there.  I signed all the paperwork to purchase the car, and hadn't even seen it (except in passing, it was being taken to fill up as we were pulling in, and I caught just a glimpse of it).  When I finally got in the car, before I could even drive it, someone on the lot offered me $60,000 for it, almost 150% of the price I just agreed to pay through financing.  Since then, the car has been great to me, albeit some hickups along the way, but overall I am still thrilled to own Volt #492.

All that being said, the passion for EVs has faded a bit; I think the world has come to accept them more (there are 3 Volts and 2 Teslas at my work, all of which plug in, and Arizona now allows Volts to get HOV lane access which is great because my new commute practically requires it), and I think they are definitely an embedded part of the inevitable future.  It's not that I don't love my EV as much, it's just that with lower resistance comes a reduced passion to fight the good fight for EVs.  I no longer get surprised looks in parking lots, or badgering questions, and people have even stopped sending me news clips of Volts catching on fire (all of which were terribly inaccurate).  I look now to the future, which I am even more anxious and excited about.  I think the next step is autonomous vehicles, and I don't think they can come soon enough. If EVs scared the general public, self-driving technology has the potential to drive people out of the country in sheer terror.  But at the same time, I reason that the most dangerous thing you can do any day of the week is get into a vehicle.  Whether you're driving or not, you have a higher potential of dying in a car wreck than any other activity most people encounter in a year, with obvious exceptions. 

I saw a lot of irony in the fear of EVs for two reasons.  One, every person who feared the technology also owned multiple devices that employed that exact technology.  In fact, if you read between the lines in the crazy blown-out-of-proportion articles, the only ways to make a Volt catch on fire, it seemed, was to either set the whole damn place on fire, and the car would eventually catch on too, or severely damage the battery multiple times, turn it on its side, let fluids leak out for weeks, and then it might ignite itself.  So, my conclusions were, if your garage is on fire, don't get into the Volt that's in the garage, and don't stay in a Volt for weeks on end after a severe collision.  Following these two rules would prevent any death "caused" by the oh-so-dangerous Volt.  Nevermind, that it exceeded the safety regulations, it was an EV and therefore its scary!  Give me a break!  Meanwhile, iPhone batteries were burning up and endangering hundreds of people at a time on airplanes, but nobody got up in arms about those.  You know why?  Because iPhones are familiar, and Volts are not.  Second, people were perfectly comfortable driving around "internal combustion engines" - it has the word combustion right in there!  Gas is flammable, did people forget that?  Cars catch on fire from time to time, and they are not EVs.  So even if EVs were as dangerous, the worst that could happen is status quo. 

Similarly, I hear fears that I find irrational when casually discussing the potential of autonomous vehicles.  The most predominantly irritating question to me is, "What happens if the car fails to respond appropriately?"  My response is usually, "What if you fail to respond appropriately?  Or what if the car behind you fails to respond appropriately?"  Every day people die because humans fail to respond appropriately, so this fear is irrational to me.  Then again, I've been programming macros for years, and have always faced fears that the macros are doing something they aren't supposed to do.  When dealing with my macros, I reassure people that it is programmed to take the same steps you would take, it just does it a lot faster.  My experience in programming gives me faith in the potential for autonomous vehicles, because of just that. An autonomous vehicle, programmed well, would react the same way I would or should react, but much faster, and without distraction.  Whereas I may miss something while looking in a mirror, the autonomous vehicles effectively has eyes in all directions, and the logic would kick in much faster than human reaction time even without distraction.  I just finished reading, "The Great Race" by Levi Tillemann, which was primarily about the history of the EV, with an Afterword focused on autonomous vehicles.  The book cites one NHTSA study that showed "human error caused or contributed to 99 percent of incidents," translating to "tens of thousands of lives a year in America" that could be saved with appropriate automation.  I think the fear of automation is more of a control issue - if you feel like you are in control, then you have a false sense of security.  Handing that control over to a computer, even if its a more capable driver than you are, is what leads to this fear.  As for me, as long as I trust the programming and sensors, I will have no problem relinquishing control, because I believe computers are more capable already, and will only get better with time.  Even if my car's computer fails, it is likely going to do a better job handling a given situation than I would, and that's less of a risk than the risk we take every day driving ourselves to and from work. 

Yet autonomous vehicles, for all the promises they carry, do have some legitimate safety concerns.  Cyberattacks, to me, seem to be the most threatening.  There will have to be significant momentum around autonomous vehicles before hackers will bother to attempt such hacks, but as long as the cars are somehow connected to the internet, there will probably be a way to hack into them.  This is the most troubling aspect to me; because it is terribly sexy to think of being dropped off at the front door, and letting my car park itself, or better yet, generate some income for me by enlisting itself on an Uber-like service for the day, then being recalled to my location with an app on
my SmartPhone.  But in order for it to be recalled back to us, and in order for it to play on car-sharing services, it has to be connected.  And that connection point is a threat.  No amount of cyber-security will ever assure me that a connected car cannot be hacked.  So, I try to play out the scenario of a completely self-sufficient autonomous car that is not actively connected to the Internet.  Maybe we plug it in at home for a limited amount of time to get the latest map and construction updates, but once unplugged, it operates in an airplane-mode-like status.  This still poses a small threat of downloading, but at least its not an "always on" connection.  I'd imagine there could be encrypted packages coming directly from whatever authority we trust, that we put on a flashdrive and install on the cars.  We can still get traffic and weather updates on our phones live during the drive, so if something severe did come up, we could still manually tell the cars how to respond without them being connected themselves.  But this means the cars will sit, like they do today, in the parking lot and we have to go out to it to tell it where to go next.  Maybe that's the sacrifice we'd make for assured or enhanced security.  I also imagine that cars could communicate among themselves with something less than full connectivity but more than sensors; maybe a hybrid technology lovechild between Bluetooth (localized) and EDI (standardized, plain-text) so that no viruses or hacking mechanisms could attach themselves. 

The biggest barrier, as far as I can see, for autonomous vehicles is not the technology, not the consumer demand and not the infrastructure.  To me, the biggest hindrance is going to be the laws and government policies which also currently seem to be rooted in fear.  Even liability will work itself out, I think, but if autonomous cars are not allowed to drive without an alert driver, then the technology is worse than pointless.  In fact, that makes it almost more dangerous: requiring an alert driver in an autonomous vehicle means a driver who is primarily not occupied with driving and yet vehicle manufacturers hold no liability because the driver is supposed to be alert.  If "The Great Race" teaches
us anything, its that government needs to promote new and socially beneficial technologies with supportive policies, incentives and grants.  Putting up roadblocks does not deter the cars from coming into being, and it does not protect the government from being liable.  Government roadblocks will cause the host country to fall behind the technology race, and leaves the government open to lawsuits and criticism, at best.  Imagine if Canada, Europe, China and Japan all had networks of primarily autonomous vehicles racing at high speeds with fewer accidents combined than that in the state of Illinois, and the US laws prevented the technology from growing and prospering in this country.  People would be dying, becoming paralyzed or seriously injured every day, for no other reason than because of those laws.  How long would it take for victims and their families to build a class action lawsuit to remove the barriers to autonomous vehicles?  When they win, which they would, then the US would have to play catch up in the technology, maybe paying royalties to Japan and elsewhere, while the rest of the world has already benefited from years of experience and advancements.  The technology seems to be pretty robust, and America has the opportunity right now to get ahead and stay ahead in this technology. 

My Dad commuted further than the average American for a good part of my early childhood, and regularly got speeding tickets.  He always dreamed of a way to get between Phoenix and Tucson, two hours away by today's speed limits, in which cars would hook into a chain and be stacked up inches away from the next car and fly at incredible speeds of over 100 mph to shorten this well-traveled and congested route.  While I never thought it would be practical to install such a chain, I do foresee a future in which cars could travel at otherwise dangerous speeds, but being autonomous and (at least slightly) connected, would not be dangerous.  This is possible with autonomous cars.
On a freeway with four or more lanes, one could be dedicated to autonomous cars, much like today's HOV lane.  The autonomous cars could have an increased speed limit, maybe 100 mph, and even draft off each other which increases fuel efficiency in addition to reducing time traveled.  The idea of an autonomous vehicle lane, to me, may even reduce the anxiety and fears of both government and the general public.  The laws could be altered to say that alert drivers are required to enter and exit the autonomous vehicle lane, but once in that lane, the car would be allowed to take over, and the driver is freed to read the news or check facebook.  This would mean that any accidents in that lane would not impact non-autonomous traffic, and could allow for a proving ground until acceptance has broadened.

Unfortunately, if EV fears is any indication, and I believe it is, I presume that fully autonomous vehicles will not be widely adopted for a long time.  I'd like to believe that they're just around the corner, but I just think there are too many hurdles, not in technology but in regulation and consumer trust.  Instead, I think we'll see autonomous features sneak their way into luxury cars, and then trickle down to their economy counterparts.  Lane keeping, park assist and automatic braking are evidence, as these features are already present in some cars.  I don't believe autonomous cars are science fiction, I think they are inevitable.  The questions will be, how long does it take to get there, and who will lead us into this inevitable future?

A close relative was walking down the street last Halloween, hand-in-hand with her husband.  They had just moved to their dream retirement house in Florida, and they walked every morning.  A presumed distracted driver veered to the side of the road, hit her and killed her almost instantly.  To me, whenever autonomous vehicles are rolled out on a mass scale, they will be too late.  But, better late than never.  

Let's get to work America, and make our roads safer for all the lives that can still be saved. 


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