The Ultimate Cruise Control

In 2002, over 43,000 people died in 6.3 million car accidents in the United States, and 2.9 million were injured. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, that's about 1.5 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Though 43,000 is a pretty ugly figure to focus on, we are driving under significantly safer conditions than we used to: In 1960, there were 5.1 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled.

The rate of fatalities per miles traveled has been decreasing steadily in the last ten years. In the next 30 years, expect the figure to drop to zero, and we can thank our lazy right foot for that achievement.

For a couple years now, some luxury automakers have offered, on their top vehicles, "adaptive cruise control," a feature that allows the driver to set speed and following distance, that is, 75mph at no less than 1,000 feet behind the car in front. If cars in front slow down, the adaptive cruise control senses it and slows the car down at the same rate, in order to keep the 1,000-foot distance.

Adaptive cruise control is a crude form of collision avoidance system (CAS), a technology installed in all commercial aircraft. If two airplanes should get too close to each other, their CAS will detect the proximity, take control of the airplane (from either the human or the auto pilot) and, via programming, determine the course to avoid crashing into the other jet. (Special parameters are in place to decide which airplane goes up and to the left, and which will go down and to the right.)

Current car technology is already progressing toward that point. Just last week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its new S-Class vehicles, on their way to U.S. shores in 2006. In addition to adaptive cruise control, the new S-Class features "a radar-assisted braking system that detects objects ahead and applies the proper amount of braking even if the driver doesn't." While this system is a minor evolution of adaptive cruise control, it does represent the true, albeit crude, beginnings of fully automated collision avoidance. And in the meantime, the little-known but very effective Electronic Stability Control feature, available in many low-end luxury vehicles, promises to save thousands of lives each year by preventing cars from losing control in curves.

We from WWNK predict that within 5-10 years, automakers will offer similar systems. If the car should sense that a particular driving situation is becoming dangerous, the system will temporarily take over, navigate safely through the danger, and then return control to the driver.

At first, the new systems might include basic programmed instructions, like the airplane CAS--but in time, they are bound to get more sophisticated. Perhaps all the cars will communicate among each other instantaneously, so that each car's path will be chosen collectively. The BMW, for example, would take a more aggressive maneuver because it can, while the packed minivan will take more defensive action because the kids come first.

Once again, control will then revert back to the driver. Since people like driving, the ability to direct the car will always be available, though in time, not long after collision avoidance is perfected, cars will be able to drive themselves, and all you need to do is tell it the address of where you want to go. In as little as 30 years, many people may own a car, but won't know how to drive it because the computer has always done it for them, and they never had to learn.

Most people who owned a Model T didn't have a drivers license, and many states didn't require drivers licenses until the 1930s. We may be returning to that: Having a drivers license will be similar to knowing how to drive a car with a manual... a special talent acquired.

Collision avoidance and self-driving vehicles promise to be liberating: Significantly fewer to no deaths due to car accidents, far fewer insurance claims, overall cheaper transportation costs, freedom for people who could not be licensed otherwise (due to young age, old age, health conditions, vision issues, etc.). With the appropriate technology, 'drivers' could work at their computer, answer emails and phone calls, and basically turn their cars into mobile offices. It'll be interesting to watch an activity the government loves to regulate no longer needing regulation; it'll likely take an extra 20 years for the states to stop trying to needlessly keep it under control.

Of course, in this utopia of private transportation, the police, too, won't want to be left behind. In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise's character struggles to escape from a car which has been remotely commanded to drive to the police station. Less sophisticated, though perhaps just as ominous, a system is being tested by British police that uses radio waves to disrupt a car's computer, effectively disabling the vehicle. It remains to be seen whether such a 'stun gun for cars' will blast bystanders' pacemakers as well.

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Posted 07-05-2005 4:14 PM by Doug Casey