Down the road, the car will take you out for a spin

The design and production of self-driving automobiles has already begun. Google has a fleet of them cruising Bay Area roads.

As crazy as it sounds, you may one day get into your car and head to the coffee shop, to work, to the gym or the beach without ever putting your foot on the brake or the gas pedal.

No, you're not going to have a chauffeur. Your car is going to drive itself.

Impossible?

Not at all. The design and production of self-driving cars has already begun. Google has a fleet of them cruising Bay Area roads, and in 2012  the company ran a demonstration in which a local resident got behind the wheel of a Prius, went to lunch and picked up his dry cleaning without having to touch the controls.

Oh, and did I mention that the driver was blind?

"People have asked me if it was kind of scary," says Steve Mahan, director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, who was accompanied by the Google engineer who had programmed the car's destinations. "I said no. What's scary is riding with humans."

In fact, industry analysts project an 80% to 90% decline in accidents when computers take over. And by some accounts, traffic will pick up speed, since eliminating human responses from the equation will make closer spacing of cars possible and reduce congestion.

Last week, the California DMV had a public hearing on road-testing regulations for autonomous vehicles, and the week before that, a driverless Audi cruised the streets of Las Vegas to demonstrate what could become a common sight beginning in six years or so. So brace yourselves. Me? I'm looking forward to being able to dispatch my car to pick up a No. 19 at Langer's.

And just imagine a commute where you didn't have to watch the road. You could work on your screenplay on the way to the coffee shop to work on your screenplay. You could learn to play the guitar or lean out the window and chuck eggs at Justin Bieber. Better yet, you'll have more time to read the newspaper.

Of course, there are still some unanswered questions, not least among them how much these things will cost.

Also, will hackers be able to strike at rush hour and turn the 405 into a demolition derby?

Who's liable in an accident — the owner of the car, the manufacturer, or a software engineer?

Given the accident rates for young drivers, will they have these things, please, before my daughter is old enough to drive?

Bryant Walker Smith, a Stanford fellow and member of the school's Center for Automotive Research, has been looking into and blogging on those issues. He thinks self-driving cars are a certainty, but that the features will be rolled out slowly, meaning that humans will still have to be at the wheel for a while.

Limo drivers, to name just one group, may lose their livelihoods. But this could also be a job builder in greater Los Angeles, which has struggled to fill the void left by the decline of aerospace and manufacturing. With a tech boomlet sprouting in Silicon Beach, why shouldn't the capital of car culture become the international center of research, design and production of all things related to the transformation of the way we travel?

Terry Bennett, of Autodesk Inc., told me that South Korea has designed a system in which electric buses are wirelessly charged as they travel over embedded cables. Scandinavia and other countries are working on sensors that will warn motorists, perhaps with an illuminated snowflake, that the road ahead is icy. In the event of an accident or slowdown, sensors will activate brakes, so there's a brief simultaneous slowdown instead of a delayed, chain-reaction traffic jam.

Bennett warned against focusing only on vehicles, though, rather than the environment in which they exist. Autonomous vehicles may be old school in 35 years, he said, and "it could be all mass transit at that point."

We should think, too, about why we need so many cars, which are like boats in the harbor. A lot of them just sit most of the time, taking up space, parked in countless concrete parking structures in a city with scandalously little green space.

At the L.A. Tech Summit last year, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would like for Los Angeles to be the first large city in the world "to have a driverless car neighborhood where we can show that technology working, bring that industry here and at the same time improve the quality of our lives."

So what's the lucky neighborhood, and shouldn't the potholes be filled before we rattle the guts out of a fleet of expensive high-tech cars?

Garcetti told me he is, in fact, still trying to restore basic services before he moves on to bigger stuff. But he said he's looking for a new Department of Transportation general manager with broad skills and big ideas. And it might be better, he said, to create a driverless local university campus, using all the school's great minds and resources, before trying it in a neighborhood.

"Imagine if your phone had an app with a hundred bucks of transportation dollars on it," Garcetti said, and you could use it to call for a driverless vehicle that works sort of like a mini-mass transit system. Or you could use it for a shared bike, or a bus, or a train.

Now that's a city I wouldn't mind living in.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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