There it sat in the lobby of the Miami-Dade Government Center, the driverless car from the (maybe pretty near) future, its lasers spinning and radar thrumming and cameras peering and GPSes peeping, collecting millions of bytes of information a second to suppress the idiocy and — at least in Florida, arguably, if you’ve ever traveled the Palmetto at rush hour — malevolence of human operators, and a random guy walks up to the research wizards who put it all together and delivers a killer blow:
“All those gadgets attached to the car, the first time you drive into the ’hood, somebody’s gonna steal ’em.”
It was, admitted Charles Reinholtz, the chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s mechanical engineering department, a supremely deflating moment for the scientists and engineers racing to get that tricked-out Ford Escape onto the road. “He raised a really good question,” Reinholtz said, momentarily too somber to throw around “exhilarating,” “revolutionary” or any of the other words that ordinarily festoon the talk of the researchers. “There’s still a lot we have to figure out about these vehicles.”
This technology is going to change the world in the most profound ways. It’s essentially going to eliminate accidents. It’s going to save lives. It’s going to practically eliminate auto insurance.
Charles Reinholtz, chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s mechanical engineering department
But not as much as there used to be. The car, affectionately known as Plan B to its human squires, is getting tantalizingly close to Florida’s freeways after five years of testing at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus. And when it makes its entrance, the researchers say, it’s going to knock your eyes out.
“This technology is going to change the world in the most profound ways,” said Reinholtz, his exuberance reigniting itself. “It’s essentially going to eliminate accidents. It’s going to save lives. It’s going to practically eliminate auto insurance. It’s going to change the way we think about car ownership — maybe you’ll share a car with five or six other people, and just call it when you need it.
“Downtowns will be able to eliminate all their parking lots, because why would you drive around looking for parking? Just get out and send the car home. Call it back when you’re ready to go.”
Plan B and some of its driverless-car technological cousins were on display Wednesday as part of a transportation fair sponsored by the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization. A steady parade of visitors clustered around it, including everybody from technogeeks — who fought their way downtown through morning rush hour for a chance gaze at a cluster of 64 laser beams flashing 1.4 million times a second — to homeless guys amiably inquiring if the car were yet capable of dispensing free sandwiches.
There were long and ultimately crestfallen lines of people to try a video-game-like simulator of sitting behind the wheel of Plan B. It didn’t take long for would-be daredevils to realize the bitter truth lurking underneath the sci-fi surface of driverless cars: They’re really boring.
Though the video screen threw up all the standard thrills of South Florida driving — other drivers braking for hallucinations or doing their 7 mph imitations of garden slugs in the fast lane, cretinous pedestrians wandering through busy traffic, basically just about everything short of a face-eating zombie — the car does all the work of slowing, swerving and otherwise evading catastrophe.
“It can be pretty dull,” conceded Daniel Barber, a professor of autonomous systems at the University of Central Florida, one of the software developers, as yet another customer frustrated with the low body count slunk away. “It’s more interesting when we have it hooked up to experiment with communications.”
The simulator, it turns out, is not really a jillion-dollar advertising device for the insomnia-curative properties of driverless cars, but a tool for the development of a related technology, the so-called connected car — a car that communicates with other vehicles and even parts of the traffic infrastructure.
Long before human drivers are completely done away with, their cars may be warning them in advance that there’s a traffic jam up the road, or another vehicle currently occupies the lane they’re trying to move to, or even that somebody is about to run that stoplight just ahead. “But we need to figure out the quickest way to communicate that without freaking them out,” Barber said. Does a beeping noise work best? Or a flashing light? Or a vibrating seat? Or a scary Terminator voice barking DON’T TURN THERE, IDIOT HUMAN!
Even while the researchers are still pondering stuff like the best warning signals or how to keep the lasers from getting swiped or — possibly the most important of all — how to block hackers from seizing control of your car and racing a train to a railroad crossing, we’re getting much, much closer to the time when you might see a car with an empty driver’s seat idling next to you at a stoplight.
Many features of driverless technology are already available in high-end vehicles. “Most of the manufacturers now offer automatic parallel-parking technology on some of their high-end models,” Reinholtz said. “And Tesla has cars with almost everything that we use on Plan B except the lasers.”
Automakers earlier this year announced that they’ll make collision-avoidance systems — automatic braking when radar and cameras detect an impending crash — a standard feature on virtually all new cars sold in the United States by 2022.
In fact, it may take longer to sort out the laws surrounding driverless cars than it does to perfect the technology. Even though Florida is relatively advanced in thinking about the subject — with California, Nevada and Michigan, it’s one of just four states to permit experimental driverless cars on the roads — there are still plenty of legal glitches to work out, as Reinholtz discovered while working on an autonomous pontoon boat for the U.S. Navy.
“The law says every registered vessel has to have a throwable life-preserver on board,” he said. “So we have one on our boat, even though there’s nobody on the boat to fall overboard, and nobody to throw the life preserver, either.”