Technology takes unpredicted turns. Ever since the 1939 Worlds Fair, tech pundits imagined flying cars. Never happened, but drones delivering a box of Tide to your backyard, more likely. Not exactly a flying car, but why fly to the store when the store can fly to you? Humm, no one predicted that.
Other advances are incremental such that we never knew where the end game would be. When the iPhone was introduced ten years ago, Apple didn’t announce a computer for your pocket. It was little more than a cell phone that incorporated the iPod features for music and a weak camera like other cell phones had at the time. Year by year, it became the device that keeps teen eyes glued to text, but much more. It is a device that made other industries like Uber and Lyft possible and made social media blossom. Who predicted that?
So it is with the self-driving car. That’s been thought of ever since that 1939 World Fair, but back then, technologists imagined special roads constructed to make it happen. Now, the car itself, with cameras and radar sensors, promises to do the job on its own. However, something else is happening far more subtle. On the way to the big goal of self driving, consumers who don’t cotton to the idea will find themselves using features of the technology.
Case in point is my new Infiniti Q70. It’s equipped with a number of ‘driver assistance’ features. Taken together, it’s close to self-driving, although Infiniti steers clear of that term. On a recent drive on the Capital Beltway during rush hour in stop and go traffic, I put the cruise control on 65 mph and turned on the driver assistance features. Then, I simply steered. The car slowed when the car ahead of me slowed, it came to a complete stop when that car stopped. Should I attempt to cross the lane line without signaling, it pulled me back into the lane. Once, I attempted to change lanes, turn signal on, with a car in my blind spot and the car pulled me back with authority. I averaged far less speed than the 65 mph I set, but the car seemed to drive itself with more gentle acceleration and gentler braking than I would (so reported my wife from the shotgun position).
I saw a video of some young men in an Infiniti equipped like mine driving the Autobahn with their hands off the steering wheel and, at one point, climbing out of the driver’s seat as the car continued to speed down the highway. This was, of course, insane. The car is designed to keep you from crossing lane markings, not keep you positioned in the middle. I imagine stunts like this give the Infiniti lawyers pause and are why the term ‘driver assistance’ is used.
Yet, all of us will be using self-driving features in the coming years, even if we never think we are letting the car drive itself. It may only be that one time the car took over the braking to keep you from rear-ending the car ahead of you. And in that future moment, as it is now with GPS knowing where you are on the face of the globe, or your phone telling you a friend’s birthday is tomorrow, you’ll think ‘hasn’t it always been this way?’