My 96-year-old dad periodically recalls his father getting into arguments with folks in the early 20th century over horseless carriages.
That’s what automobiles were called. Dad’s father was born in 1880. Horses, buggies and wagons were transportation mainstays.
Railroads carried people and commerce across country. Most people in the early 20th century were convinced that horseless carriages would remain the expensive playthings of the rich.
My grandfather, who worked more than 40 years as a brakeman for Norfolk & Western Railway, believed differently. Any contraption, he said, that would enable people to sit and ride effortlessly without worry and without getting dirty eventually would sell like hotcakes.
Although he never learned to drive, my grandfather turned out to be right. The same logic could be applied to self-driving cars being tested today.
Nevada, California and Florida have passed laws making it legal for driver-less vehicles to operate on the roads. It may not be long before states such as Missouri and Kansas make it possible for them to pull in here.
Google is among the companies testing self-driving cars. The vehicles already have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles.
They could be on streets nationwide in five years. They work using radar sensors on the front, video cameras targeting other areas, other sensors, GPS, satellites, a computer and artificial-intelligence software.
What’s being tested now isn’t cheap, but neither were the first automobiles nor the first computers. Mass production and popular demand brought the price down.
Expect the same thing to happen with self-driven vehicles. What they’ll do for people’s transportation needs seem as endless as horseless carriages were for folks in my grandfather’s America.
Trucking companies may be among the first to use them. Goods could be shipped at all hours without worry about driver fatigue, training, lost cargo, health insurance, pensions, 401(k)s, time off for vacations, sick days or other benefits. Big trucks would be like the commercial drones being tested with vehicles running and controlled from command centers.
Cars would be tailored more to individuals’ needs. Families with two and three cars may be able to function with only one as the vehicle picks up and takes people to destinations and returns to a garage at home.
Cities may find surface and expensive multistory garages to be obsolete because owners no longer would have to pay to park. Road rage would be a thing of the past.
Self-driving car passengers wouldn’t get steamed if some old-fashioned motorist were to flip an obscene gesture, drive too slowly, too fast or cut them off. Riders in self-driving cars could concentrate on reading newspapers, magazines or books or surf online without worrying about causing a wreck. Gas use in vehicles would plummet because wasteful driving habits would become a thing of the past.
The advent of self-driving cars would give children the freedom to come and go without having to depend on mom, dad or some other adult to provide transportation. Teens wouldn’t have to go through the ordeal of learning to drive, and parents wouldn’t have to suffer through the lessons, buy cars for teens and then pay the outrageous cost of insurance.
State motor vehicle offices could become obsolete. But self-driving vehicles also would hit as baby boomers are retiring.
With self-driving vehicles, our kids wouldn’t have to worry about when to take the car keys away from mom and dad to save them from horrible accidents. Unlike previous generations, aging boomers would still have the freedom to get around where and when they want.
It would be a form of mass transit in individual pods. That’s a future to look forward to.