Fully autonomous vehicles: A journey worth pursuing

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The utopian visions of roads dominated by self-driving vehicles might not ever come to pass, but it’s still a goal worth pursuing. 

Making roads safer and easing congestion are among the benefits often cited by proponents of this potentially revolutionary technology

But it’s always striking for me to hear how much auto executives’ views on self-driving vehicles differ from one another. Some executives are excited about a future of fewer deaths on roadways and radically redesigned, more efficient vehicles. Others accept autonomy as inevitable in the long term while lamenting the eventual loss of the excitement and thrill that can come with driving

And some, like Toyota Canada CEO Larry Hutchinson, don’t view autonomous vehicles as a sure thing. The way he and Toyota see it, semi-autonomous features will function as co-pilots of sorts, but most consumers will still want to control the steering wheel. 

“While other automakers are working on vehicles that drive themselves, turning us into passive passengers, we’re incorporating advanced technologies in ways that enhance, not deaden, the driving experience,” Hutchinson said at a February media dinner in Toronto ahead of the Canadian International AutoShow. 

Whose vision of the future is correct? Is it Hutchinson’s? Might it be the future predicted by former General Motors Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz, who famously (or infamously) predicted in an issue of sibling publication Automobile News | tomobile.org that the “end of the automotive era” was approaching, giving way to an era dominated by autonomous, “standardized modules”?

Perhaps there’s a middle ground. It’s impossible to know, of course, and anyone who says for certain that he or she knows what the future of transportation looks like is not being fully truthful. To be sure, it’s easy to see self-driving vehicles becoming the norm in certain urban environments, and it’s easy to envision ride-hailing services using fleets of automated vehicles

Skeptics will point to a host of challenges, especially in Canada: Snow and ice can make sensors less effective; lawmakers will need to put in place new regulations; it might be impossible to program a car to know what to do in any potential scenario; it is unclear who would be at fault if a self-driving car crashed; and ethical questions abound about what vehicles should do in nightmare scenarios. 

And, as Hutchinson said, a lot of people still like to drive. 

Combine those and other factors, and it’s possible we might never see fully automated vehicles — or Lutz’s modules — as commonly as some predict. 

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue such a future. Autonomous research and development already has led to advancements in vehicle technology that will save lives and make driving easier. 

Fewer roadway deaths is a worthy goal even if the grand visions of autonomous roadway fail to become reality. And, hey, you might still get to drive your car. 

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