This past Tuesday, I had my first ride in an autonomous car. The anticipation for me was a bit like a kid waiting for Christmas. But when I shared my enthusiasm with friends and colleagues, many thought I was crazy. A few warned me to make sure my life insurance was paid in full before getting into the car. Others seemed to think I was boarding something like the Starship Enterprise and perhaps envisioned Captain Picard saying “Make it so” as we began the ride.
In reality, the Audi A7 looked pretty much like any other car on the road. The most amazing thing about the experience was how un-amazing it was. When I thought about it, it seemed a little odd for the car to change lanes on the highway all by itself. But the actual experience of changing lanes was at least as smooth as with any human driver.
In fact, rather than seeming like a great leap forward, the hands-free highway driving felt like just another baby step in a line of continuous progress. Long ago, we made the switch from manual transmissions to automatic. More recently, we’ve benefited from lane assist technologies and self-parking cars.
I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed at how normal it all seemed. I’m ready for a car with no steering wheel and a conference table in the back. But that’s the tech geek in me and it’ll be a long time before most people are ready to go there.
That’s why the folks at Audi want to create a comforting sense of continuity. They think it may take 25 years before we get fully autonomous cars that come when you summon them and let you ride without thinking about the road at all. I suspect it’ll come a bit faster than that. But whenever it arrives, it will seem like just another baby step in a long line of progress. It won’t even cost much more than cars with driver assist technologies today.
That’s because the plan is to start with a combination of human and autonomous driving. The reality of this was readily apparent during my ride. The Audi A7 I experienced is designed for highway driving. When it’s time to get off at an exit, the driver takes over (after the car provides plenty of notice). If the human driver doesn’t respond in time, the autonomous driver assumes something is wrong and carefully guides the car to the shoulder. At any point, however, all the driver has to do to regain control is touch the wheel or brake.
This combo approach will let the autonomous car industry grow one step at a time so that society gets comfortable with it. The earliest consumer models will probably handle only certain tasks like highway driving and parking. Humans will still be responsible for the more challenging steps like merging onto a highway or dealing with side streets. Gradually, over a period of many years, the role of the human driver will wind down. Hopefully, that will happen before my kids tell me I’m too old to drive safely. At that point, it will be a real blessing to have a fully autonomous car take me where I need to go.