Asleep at the Wheel?

Illustration: Terriana/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Behold, the automobile. Has there ever been a product that carried more meaning than the car? Originally adopted as a faster and more efficient mode of transport, it has become a symbol of prowess and prosperity, an object of desire, an expression of taste and personality. Buying a car usually includes considerations about not only cost, appearance and performance, but also what the car says about the buyer, or perhaps more accurately, what the buyer hopes it will say about him or her. In the not-too-distant future, much of this will become irrelevant. 

It’s becoming more and more evident that young adults aren’t interested in owning a car of any description. Many under-30s I know, especially those who live in congested cities, would rather save the money they might spend on parking, insurance and car payments to use for travel around the world. If they need to get somewhere, they will summon a driver with their mobile app. Or take the train or the bus, or rent a car for the weekend. And that trend will get a sturdy push when autonomous vehicles become the rule rather than the exception. 

Cars that drive themselves have many advantages, beginning with the fact that widespread adoption will probably mean you won’t have to own one. Experts, such as those from Stanford whom we talked to for our cover story, say that someday soon, large fleets of autonomous vehicles will be available for weekday commutes, runs to the grocery store, road trips to Yosemite. 

When this happens, they say, everything we presently take for granted about individual travel will change. Liberated from such pesky details as having two hands on the wheel, commuters will be able to tidy up that report for the boss, perform a yoga routine or learn Tagalog. Busy working parents will no longer have to rely on someone else to ferry their children back and forth to school. (Nor will they have to endure the extravagant efforts by their middle school–aged kids to avoid being seen in the same car as Mom or Dad.) Instead, Alex and Emma will get dropped off by a robot car, which perhaps will be programmed to remind them which homework assignments are due and what time basketball practice starts.

And what about that road trip to Yosemite? Imagine an open-air autonomous vehicle with 360-degree views of the scenery and no need to worry about the twisty mountain roads. I would sign up for that, assuming the car always knows that if a rock dislodges from the cliff above and lands in the roadway, appropriate responses do not include swerving toward the shoulder where lies a deathly plunge of several thousand feet. As our experts note, developing a car smart enough to navigate unusual encounters is one of the biggest challenges yet to be solved. Until that gets figured out, I will probably be driving my old-fashioned stupid car over Tioga Pass.

But make no mistake—cars with brains are coming, in large numbers and with large implications. For a sneak peek, see our cover story.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of StanfordEmail Kevin