My Word: Auto-Auto

January 29, 2014 Comments (7)

By Denise McCluggage

It’s closer than you think. What to call it isn’t quite so certain. Some say “driverless cars”, others “self-driving cars”. I have decided on Auto-Auto which is short for “autonomous automobile”. That may well be my own private whimsy, but I like it.

The technology has flown on the wings of bright minds and bounding curiosity. And a lot of striking the forehead with the heel of the hand. One of the most critical such strikes came when the idea of smart highways—buried wires like those that change our traffic lights, sensors on fence posts etc. and similar ideas which were making headway in Europe—suddenly gave way to: “Not the road, stupid—the car, the car.” Strike away.

So arrived the challenge in the Mojave. The slightly skewed thinking (a near-requirement for such ventures) was in evidence at the first prize-supported robot car challenge (with a military spin) in the Mojave Desert a decade ago. Laughably inept machines were struggling to dodge shadows and the leading contenders ended beached on boulders, bobbing awkwardly. None completed the full course. No prize- money awarded.

But be careful what you sniggle at. The very thinkers and tinkerers involved in that adventure and the far more successful one the next year have now put thousands of accident-free miles on the likes of Google do-it-without-you vehicles and an Auto-Auto world is here! Just not obviously yet. (Four states so far have authorized on-the-road testing.)

What we are really waiting for are the lawyers. Americans have to know who to sue. Well, agreed, liability is important so pardon my facetiousness. And impatience. But do get on with it. Besides the liability matters, some mind-tossing refinements are needed for cityscapes and crowded scenes where varied objects and people interact randomly. But right now the Interstate highway system with little more than the “nanny” aids available on new cars could be navigated safely over long distances without a human’s driverly input. Uh, maybe because of that absence. The only accidents any Google cars came near were those that happened while humans were in control.

Sorry, but you are no longer necessary.

And that irreversible fact is going to change things over time as much as the arrival of the driver-driven car more than a century ago. Just what changes will there be in that new world coming to a reality near you? Futurists are making their PHD-ish noises about it. And I, unburdened by credentials, will, in the paragraphs following, indulge my own fantasy of what a part of that future might be like—particularly for those of us who like being Drivers.

My take? Cheer up, you guys. As I see it the era of the Auto-Auto will be a boon to us. Driving will be less of that tiresome wheel-holding in crowded flocks and more actual driving. More fun, less anxiety. Oh, not in the Auto-Auto things but in the real cars of history, of fantasy, of dreams. With Auto-Auto the real cars (they don’t vaporize you know) become the new horse.

Consider this: when the clop-clop beasts were no longer needed for bearing burdens or pulling plows and coal wagons they did not—as a species anyway—disappear. Indeed horses became even more numerous than they’d ever been. But their raison d’etre was no longer utilitarian. It was recreation, joy, entertainment. A collected canter through the park; competitive jumping in tanbark arenas; extended cross-country trials; high-stepping, tail-streaming gaits in the show ring.

Marshall McLuhan has the idea. When a way of doing something is replaced by a new way the old way becomes free to reinvent itself. To become, in effect, an art form. (Anyway as I simplistically interpret him.) Thus, say, with the advent of TV then movies became “film”. Cinema.

Just you wait. You think fancy car shows are popular now, when the Auto-Auto becomes the norm for getting to work, covering necessary ground, doing whatever may be the tedium in using a car, then a concours will blossom on every main street every weekend and autocrosses on every parking lot of appropriate size. Fun. Games. Driving is so cool!

And you, dear Driver, will use the Auto-Auto to get where you have to go allowing its robotic perfection to whisk you hither and thither while you thumb through emails, make phone calls, order stuff on the internet, read a book, nap. Or gaze at the new world passing by. Nothing more is needed from you apart from your initial instructions that you input when you ordered up your Auto-Auto. What size vehicle is wanted, what amenities, when you want it to wheel up to your door. When you plan to send it home. All arranged by smart phone or computer and credit card. Tap. Tap.

I think it’s unlikely you’ll actually own an Auto-Auto. They’ll be like the late lamented Lincoln Town Cars. Available on demand, they’ll exist in fleets, only in varied sizes and with specialized purposes. And no liveried drivers. Indeed no drivers at all. Unless special circumstances call for a biped to use the Auto-Auto to, say, hand-deliver some things or interact with other bipeds in some way. At least that’s how I imagine it. (I even see these minions in dark red and green patterned uniforms and odd knit caps. Don’t ask.)

As for the Auto-Auto, I see it as fully robotic. No human oversight except in special circumstances and more for appearances. Just as there were those that envisioned the smart highway as the road to the future, some see the Auto-Auto in the watchful care of an overseer driver. Silly, I say. I think more troubles are created in that interface between complete automation and the intervention of a human. I say a driver is either totally involved with the driving of a car or totally out of it. And the present day problems with so-called “distractions” demonstrate that too many drivers are half in, half out of attention.

Anyway, there is really no such thing as a “distraction”; there are only drivers attracted to something not relevant to their immediate task. A text message on their phone. The Coke that needs to go back in the cup holder. The out-of-the-loop drivers who are suddenly alerted to pay attention to driving are more apt to over-react, respond inappropriately or goof up the scene in a unique and disastrous fashion. It must be all-robot for the Auto-Auto, say I. The Google driverless cars—testing, testing—have done more than half a million miles without an error while in driverless mode. Yes, there was one present to satisfy laws but so far never needed.

The “driver aids” in the modern car seem to add to a driver’s ability to luck through a lot of inattentive driving. (You’re out of your lane; you’re following too closely.) But that is not safety; that is chance. I believe for 100% error-free driving—which is Google’s goal and which has so far been realized—it takes the removal of the human factor. Ah, dear humans, there is much appealing about you but unerring judgment and repeatable precision in execution are not two of them. (However—pat, pat—your sort did program the computer! And tested it and corrected it and tested further. (Yes—eyes to the skies—man is still the astronomer.)

A survey by an insurance company, in an effort to determine what would be the trigger to prompt a driver to consider buying an Auto-Auto, found that only 25% of those asked thought a computer would drive better than they could. That proves how inattentive and limited in judgment drivers are. At least those who take surveys. What did kick the “would-consider-buying” answer to 90% positive? An offer to reduce insurance costs by 80%. Guess what matters most in our world.

But survey answers are not going to matter. These bargain-seeking drivers will be amazed how nick and dent free they will be, how little Auto-Auto driving will cost. How much discretionary income they’ll have for playing with cars.

Which brings me up sharply to that other kind of driving. The “horse” part.

You’ve just returned home from a three day road trip in a mid-sized Auto-Auto. One other colleague went with you. You’ve used the trip back to prepare your joint report, make plans for next week and even natter about sports. Then you dropped him at the office and selected your home on the Auto-Auto menu. Quickly you make sure all of your stuff is out of the Auto-Auto and punch its home station on the menu. (The Auto-Auto will be serviced, cleaned and automatically stored until another electronic alert summons it.)

Your trip is forgotten as your thoughts and smiles rush to your personal garage. Your finger has set the door in motion. And what is revealed?

Ah. Yours is a moderate version of what Drivers of the Auto-Auto age will have to call their own. There’s a charming low-mileage Miata; a 250 GT Ferrari SWB that your great aunt raced “in the day”; an 8C Alfa of dubious provenance but you love it anyway; an early Mercedes Gelandewagen, and a genuine garage-find Dietrich-bodied Packard.

That’s nothing. Collectors with hundreds of exquisite cars are spread across the country, some in secret underground garages beneath landscaped roadways and race courses, some with semi-public museums. And many Drivers with space or budget for only one vintage, antique or classic automobile make the most of that and love it. Some Drivers belong to exchanges in which cars circulate among the members. They claim that serial collections are simpler to deal with and just as satisfying. “We all drive one at a time,” they say.

You have several hours before your family gets home. You’ve heard that the new off-road addition to the city’s hilly Drive Park is challenging so you decide to take the G-Wagen and try a section of that. You’ll be back in time to ready the Packard for a top-down evening spin to the drive-in with roller-skating waitresses. That’s in the Drive Park by the lake. You’ll decide over sweet-potato fries which concours to attend that weekend. You’re leaning toward the all-Italian one because they’ve scheduled some races as well and the Ferrari could use some speed work outs. And you too of course.

Then the driving lessons in the Miata for the kids. Everyone should start on a manual shift before they’re twelve. If you decide to visit the in-laws you’ll order up a commercial-van-sized Auto-Auto so homework can be faced as well as that movie you want to see. Next Friday you’ll order an Auto-Auto with a trailer and take the Alfa to the national convention. The kids will come the next day in another mini Auto-Auto, ordered for one-way so you can all go home together with the Alfa.

The worst thing about a car is what to do with it once you get where you’re going. Why don’t they fold up? Or deflate? How nice you can “tap” them off when you want and “tap” them back if they’re needed. Welcome to the Auto-Auto world. You suspected they’d be great for transport from Point A to Point B—and on up the alphabet—safely and conveniently. But admit it: you’d no idea how truly excellent the advent of the Auto-Auto would be for Drivers.

Ah, but not everyone will own a cache of vintage cars—or any car at all. They’ll have their account with an Auto-Auto company and want no more. The myth of America’s love affair with the car is just that—a myth. The relationship is more a long-time marriage—dependency, need, habit. But even that is changing. Surveys show that the next generation—Millennials—reportedly find cars too expensive and ownership not particularly attractive to them. Auto-Auto fits them better. Maybe cars have reached their zenith.

One thing is certain, changes will be extreme. The auto industry will be reinvented, a subject well beyond this piece. My intention today is to reassure Drivers.

And to encourage them, like snowed-in gardeners, to plan for spring. What will be in your garage?


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Comments (7)

  1. Rod Burdick:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 07:08 AM

    What a combination! Great insight, wry humor and superb writing. Keep the column coming.

  2. Peter:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 07:26 AM

    Thank you for your prompt and positive response. We would love to hear what others think of Denise's column. Peter

  3. Larry Bee:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 07:29 AM

    Great article, can‘t wait to tap tap!

  4. Keith Carlson:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 08:16 AM

    Very clever ideas very well put, with the added icing of the lady's panache (ital) in all things. Ms McC has a joy and an attentiveness in life that we can all envy. Added delight of having enjoyed her wit and wisdom in person last evening, courtesy of our publisher and Paul Russell. A national treasure, surely.

  5. Duarte Pinto-Coelho:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 09:01 AM

    Excellent article, a pleasure to read, I loved it!
    Cant wait for the next...

  6. John Mannix:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    I've been reading her since 1958. Keep it coming. She's the best.

  7. Rich Baxter:
    Jan 31, 2014 at 01:09 PM

    Denise is one of my heroes for so many reasons. Among them her fabulous insights, great wit and her trail blazing individualism....Very much enjoyed this article and looking forward to many more.

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