The Window’s Closing

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2014 is the year we turned a historically significant corner. The self-driving car is officially in the works now; it is no longer speculative fiction.

In a very real way, self-driving cars are already here.

Several current model year vehicles can park themselves, for instance. As I type this, there is a new Lexus GS350 in my driveway. It self-parks. Push a button and the car will line itself up, adjust steering angle – and slot itself into a spot. The only action required by the “driver” (that’s you) is to gently depress the accelerator pedal when the car tells you to. Everything else is automated.

About a month ago, I got a new Acura MDX to test out. It came equipped with semi-autonomous steering (in addition to autonomous parking). Push a button and the car’s computer brain – in conjunction with electronic eyes that can scan the painted lines on the road – keeps the car on track. You can feel the steering wheel making course corrections without any input from you.

The system is not yet foolproof. If the painted lines are faded – or the curves in the road too severe – the MDX loses track of where it’s headed and will beep urgently to let you know. So that you can take over.

For the moment, a driver is still needed.

But it’s clear that moment will be brief.

Self-driving technology is elaborating itself at a literally exponential rate. Five or so years ago, there were no cars that could self-park (or self-steer).”Active” cruise control – the car automatically adjusts its following distance in relation to the ebb and flow of traffic, increasing/decreasing speed without you having to do anything – was cutting edge and found almost exclusively in a very few very high-end cars. There were none that could sense an object in the car’s path and apply the brakes full-force and automatically bring the car to a complete stop, if need be, without the “driver” even touching the brake pedal.

Such systems are almost de facto standard equipment (like leather seats and climate control AC)  today in higher-end cars – and they are becoming common in cars priced in the $30k-ish range. Just as climate control AC and leather seats are now almost-expected amenities in cars costing around $25k, so it will be that within a few years at the latest, virtually every car that’s not an entry-level economy type of car will come equipped with at least some degree of driver-less “assistance.”

Probably, even entry-level cars will soon boast such technology – as a result of the same market forces that have made AC and power windows and cruise control and iPod hook-ups included in the standard equipment package of probably 95 percent of 2014 model year vehicles. I cannot remember the last time I got a new car to test drive that didn’t come standard with all of those things.

Just so, these electronic assists will filter, as by osmosis, from top to bottom.

Because it is now technically – and economically – feasible. And because – in the main – people want these things. They want to be relieved of the chore of driving.

It’s not like it is depicted in the commercials. The open road, a sunny day. You and your car, having a ball.

No traffic, no hassles.

The reality – for most people – is slogging along in relentless, endless bumper-to-bumper traffic. Staring at the tailgate of the minivan ahead with its stick figure family and yellow and pink ribbons.

What the car company PR people like to call “infotainment” – the LCD touchscreen displays with Internet connectivity, Bluetooth, all that stuff – is there precisely because the act of driving has been rendered largely futile.

Or criminal. (See here, for instance, to learn all about usurious traffic fines and “reckless driving” busts.)

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