In the 80’s Michael Knight, the character of the mythical series “Knight Rider”, came out of all the dangerous trances thanks to his smart Pontiac. The most imaginative dreamers of that decade already imagined that in the near future their car would include the most advanced features that the scriptwriters had foreseen, such as autonomous driving. But it was unthinkable that today’s cars would end up as computers on wheels.
In fact, the connected vehicle begins to carry as many or more electronic components as a smartphone, which is a paradigm shift that is going to revolutionize our consumption habits. The importance of this is reflected in the number of marketing campaigns that focus on connectivity and associated applications offered by vehicles rather than on motorization, consumption or performance.
Connected vehicles provide roadside assistance in the event of potential accidents, and plan the most appropriate routes for each journey based on traffic and weather conditions, but they can also collect data on our location, preferences and even driving habits. With all this data they can suggest gas stations, hotels and restaurants along our route in a personalized way or even partner with our insurance company to reduce our annual rate. Automobile manufacturers can move from being mere transporters of people and goods to be prescriptors of products and services, opening up a universe of new business models.
With all this, our quality of life has improved greatly on board. And this improvement includes advances related to sustainability and environmental care. Vehicles consume less fuel, emit less polluting gases and evolve towards models, such as the electric car, with zero environmental impact. In addition, cities have evolved and city councils, liable to stricter environmental regulations, have designed sustainable mobility plans to improve the fluidity of traffic and the quality of the air we breathe.
Among these last applications, my bet for the immediate future is for smart parking systems -such as the one designed by Libelium- that allows users to identify free spaces to park in each street. Bearing in mind that in some cities it takes an average of 10 minutes to find a parking space, and some drivers perform this operation up to four times a day, we can conclude that after a year we waste ten days looking for a place to leave the car; with the stress, fuel consumption and the impact that this has on urban pollution. In a society where health care and the enjoyment of time are rising values, investments in smart parking technology are the best return for citizens.
However, some public managers are determined to banish private vehicles from city centres in a very short-term and unrealistic view of citizens’ needs. The irrational defence of public transport and the use of bicycles as the only means of sustainable mobility in cities is insufficient to meet the daily needs of citizens in any of their facets -whether private or professional- since timetables, routes and work-life balance make it increasingly difficult for mass movements to be homogeneous. And that is where the evolution of the sustainable vehicle emerges as a fundamental transport.
Electricity is already a reality that will end up conquering the urban landscape. But the evolution and the definitive revolution is in the autonomous vehicle. Its use also makes us autonomous passengers to devote our time to very different tasks from those we were used to before. And who knows, our concept of owning vehicles may even evolve to use them only when we need them.
In the seventies and eighties, the family travel model was very traditional: the father drove, the mother acted as co-pilot “map in hand” and the children were fighting crammed in the rear seats, without seat belts, and with the only entertainment of seeing the landscape. Later on, the game consoles arrived and now the mobile phones and the screens integrated in the rear seats allow passengers to enjoy each trip dedicating themselves to their favorite hobbies.
The advantages of the autonomous car will now also come for drivers who will only have to worry about programming their route. Although recent studies show that the majority of drivers will continue to pay attention to the road, the possibilities opened up by using this new free time will have a strong long term impact on our productivity and consumption habits, both in terms of products and contents.
But is everything really going to be so idyllic? The legal vacuum that now exists and motivates many ethical debates resides in the dilemma about the programming of these autonomous vehicles’ decisions.
What should prevail: the protection of the driver, of pedestrians or of the “greater good” trying to minimize the number of victims in each case?
A paper published in 2016 in the journal Science showed the results of a series of surveys in which participants were in favor of vehicles priming the lives of pedestrians. But at the same time admitted that such functionality could be a negative factor to acquire one. Therefore, while the main motivation for autonomous vehicles should be accident reduction, the programming dilemma can be a barrier for the adoption of this technology.
Every time we get into a vehicle as a passenger or co-pilot we are already accepting without thinking about putting ourselves in the hands of the decisions that the driver of the vehicle may make. But at the moment, it seems that we are not yet ready for those decisions to be made by our car. In any case, progress is almost always optional: for those nostalgics, there will always be the classics.