Mobile parking apps and self-driving cars make me uneasy. I’m an inveterate city dweller, and while I find driving to be far more irritating than public transportation, there are times when it is a must. Any city dweller who drives prides themselves on their parallel parking. We can’t walk down the street without silently judging those deemed less worthy of that backwards and blind side-slip into a tiny spot.
When the first self-driving cars could parallel park themselves hit the market, both car guys and urban dwellers scoffed. Why would you need a car that can do that? It seemed a gimmick, and one that would ultimately hurt the cause of people fitting into spots without doing damage. It didn’t help that in the commercials the cars were easing into spaces nearly twice their size. “Why, my sainted and blind grandmother, rest her soul, could have gotten into that spot if she was driving a hearse!”, we’d yell, especially if we forgot we weren’t street toughs from the 1930s.
Cars That Talk To Each Other- Like the Movie, But Somehow More Fantastic
But the times, as they will, have changed. Parallel parking systems became expected in many new cars, along with a whole raft of other technologies like rear sensors, rear cameras, and systems that can detect if you are falling asleep or drifting or if the car in front of you stops too suddenly.
These kinds of technologies are only going to continue to improve. Right now, sensors are largely responsible for these enormous advancements in safety, helping to cut out human error. But that is really just the beginning. Last week, Nokia announced that they had created a $100 million fund for “Connected Cars”:
The fund will identify and invest in companies whose innovations will be important for a world of connected and intelligent vehicles.
Nokia is already a major player in the automotive industry providing location intelligence for connected vehicles through HERE. The NGP fund, working closely with HERE, will seek to make investments that also support the growth of the ecosystem around HERE’s mapping and location products and services.
Inside that corporate jargon contains ideas that will change how we drive, if we even do. Cars that can communicate with each other through mapping, GPS, and mobile technology, as well as the Internet of Things, can make the roads markedly safer. If you are driving and suddenly your coffee spills, you can start to veer, distracted for a split second. But not only has your car recognized through facial recognition that you are distracted, it has alerted the other cars in your vicinity, which can take immediate action so that no one crashes into each other. Brakes and steering wheels spring into action, keeping everyone safe.
It’s pretty easy to see where this is going.
Parking today, relaxing tomorrow
When cars can communicate their location, there are a number of things they can do for you. One is finding parking. There are already a number of apps that try to make finding a parking spot in a crowded area easier, and most of them have to do with crowd-sourcing. But if you have cars that can communicate with one each other, you can cut that out. Just use your smartphone to enter where you want to go, and your car or phone will communicate with other cars in that area to “check” if any of them are leaving, or if any spots are opening up. Imagine being able to glance down at your phone and see that this spot two blocks away really is the closest you’re going to get, so that you don’t try to find an even closer one and miss out on what now seems like a front-door spot.
Of course, that’s just part of it. We’re getting closer to the day of self-driving cars. If cars can talk, and if all cars know where each other is, there is no real reason for humans to drive. You would just plug in where you want to go, and the car will take you there, instantly plugging itself into a traffic algorithm that will allow all cars to drive with maximum efficiency and safety. This is probably closer than we even think. Google has made great strides, but there are others already challenging their market dominance.
Relying on the machine
Needless to say, the idea of us all in self-driving cars is pretty controversial. There are a lot of arguments for and against it, the against variety being about freedom and the open road. I personally am wildly in favor of it. I get the emotional argument, but I don’t think they carry the most weight. There are still tens of thousands of traffic deaths every year, and many more injuries, from mild to permanent. And while the fatalities dropped as of late, which is part of a broader trend (thanks to improved safety measures, including taking away some driver agency), I still think we’re going to look back at these times and see an odd self-inflicted barbarism, where a moment of distraction- yours or someone else’s- at 60 MPH could cost you your life. Who needs that?
But good or ill, this is a remarkably different era we’re entering. As a society, we have never really discussed to what extent we want to rely on machines and have them make decisions for us. I think that’s because we’ve advanced so much in the last 20 years that the everyday still has a vague patina of fiction about it. It doesn’t quite seem real, until it is.
Even without self-driving cars, we have cars that talk to each other and figure out complex problems in an instant. That’s the strange thing about progress- it barrels forward like a driverless semi truck in a B-horror movie. But these cars aren’t actually without a driver- they are programmed by us and for us. The only way to not have control is to embrace ignorance. As these cars teach us, progress isn’t a rudderless ship- we’re in control if we want to be.