As automakers, suppliers and tech companies such as Google continue to break ground with autonomous vehicle technology, an author hopes to spark a conversation about how this fully automated future will be shaped.
Instead of waiting for this technology -- and the legion of societal changes it presents -- to be delivered on a platter, Peter Wayner, author of a new book on autonomous cars titled Future Ride, says the public should start imagining today what this new world could look like.
This future is approaching rapidly as Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz unit and Nissan Motor Co. plan to introduce self-driving vehicles by 2020.
Tesla also wants in on the action, recently announcing that it's developing a vehicle that would let drivers hand 90 percent of the control of the car over to a computer. Tesla hopes to have its auto-pilot car ready within three years, according to reports.
And then there's search giant Google, which has logged more than 500,000 miles with vehicles outfitted with its self-driving system.
Autonomous driving is taking shape, now it's time to ponder how it'll alter daily life.
Wayner's book delves into 80 ways self-driving cars could potentially transform society as we know it.
Wayner, who has a background in computer programming, has written more than a dozen tech-centric books on privacy-enhancing software, open software and other topics. He's also contributed to The New York Times as well as tech websites Wired and InfoWorld.
Wayner's predictions touch on subjects including how more-precise robot cars could allow six vehicles to occupy four-lane highways, yield in-car fitness centers and showers, and lead to the abandonment of ad billboards.
In Wayner's estimation, the attention of passengers riding in autonomous cars will no longer be centered on streets or their surroundings, rendering roadside advertising useless. The new marketing frontier will be in the car itself.
Wayner also envisions newfound possibilities with overnight travel.
Need to make a marathon trip to get home for the holidays?
Autonomous vehicles could operate like sleeping cars on passenger trains, complete with bunks with protective nets stretching over the blankets in case the vehicles flip or turn sharply.
Hotel companies could even get in on the act by designing pods that act as rolling Hiltons, Wayner writes.
Autonomous vehicles, which would drop people off at their destinations and move on to their next stop, could also make many parking lots obsolete.
Parking garages, long a staple of crowded downtowns in every big city, could be replaced with businesses, apartments and green space.
Motorists are slowly being weaned from the mindset that a car is just a machine they must captain, Wayner said in a recent interview.
The "psychological foundation" for consumer acceptance of the technology, he says, is being laid by automakers today.
For instance, semi-autonomous features such as adaptive cruise control and automatic braking are steadily rolling out in more models.
"I started talking to some of my friends and we started imagining all the stuff that could change. I wanted to produce a catalyst where other people can think about it as well. It's written as a book of predictions. It's important that all of us think about the changes before they happen," Wayner said.
"There's no reason we shouldn't be a part of this conversation now. We shouldn't wait until the companies just dump the technology on us, and then we're going to say, 'That's not exactly what we want.' Everybody needs to have this conversation now."
What if the car malfunctions?
The first fully autonomous vehicles will likely require that drivers have the capability of taking over if something goes haywire, Wayner said, but he sees potential workarounds.
Robotic-car occupants may be able to turn to a human roadside assistant who can fix the issue and then assume control drone-style.
"The neat thing is you could have something like a super-quality OnStar that, if you run into problems, you push a button and all of a sudden the camera from your car uploads through the network to some central control area and they drive you to safety," Wayner said.
"You might have something like the drone pilots that fly the drones. The people in the car don't need to be able to take over. They'll be able to hook up wirelessly with some central control where they have a few people who are able to troubleshoot the issue."
Wayner outlined several ways the transition to fully automated vehicles could unfold. The list includes:
- Cab rollout: Wayner writes that someone could buy an autonomous cab fleet in a city lacking mass-transit options. Customers could then set up rides via their smartphones, with trips only occurring "within a well-tested area." As people grow more comfortable with them, the range of the service could be expanded.
- One big rollout: An automaker could start selling the vehicles in states where they're legal on public roads (currently California, Nevada and Florida). He says that although the technology will be pricey, there are enough people who'll "pay for the novelty."
Of course, the road won't be easy.
Wayner says some of the top opponents of autonomous vehicles will be those who lose jobs or economic standing because of them. Cab drivers, for instance, could end up being fierce opponents.
Meanwhile, if the technology fails, lawyers, no doubt, will be standing by with product liability suits.
In addition to making driving safer, autonomous cars also could change the way accident cases are litigated.
Wayner writes that the vehicles -- equipped with advanced cameras -- will be able to collect data that makes it easier to determine who's at fault.
"If there's a good video feed available of the accident, it will only take a few minutes for a clerk to assign blame," Wayner wrote. "… Good lawyers are necessary when there's an ambiguity and uncertainty. Data removes much of that."