In 1939 General Motors sponsored an exhibit called Futurama at the New York World’s Fair. The event saw countries from all over the world participate, with nearly 45 million visitors attending in two seasons. GM’s large scale model presented to the masses ‘the world of tomorrow,' a vision of the future that was, largely, achievable. Automated highways were perhaps the most imagination-stirring element of the ride for an audience without an interstate freeway system, but even today the notion of self-driving vehicles is a fascinating one.
It’s one that is edging ever closer to becoming a reality, too, with almost every major automotive and technology company working on some form of autonomous driving. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Baidu are working either alongside, or in competition with, the likes of BMW, Honda, Ford, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz. Earlier this year, GM’s over-$1 billion acquisition of self-driving startup Cruise Automation sent ripples across the industry, and competitors are also looking at ways to speed up their driverless strategies.
Announced earlier this month, Google have struck a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to integrate its autonomous driving tech into 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. The tech giant already has 70 autonomous Lexus RX SUVs, and have already test driven their fleet a total of nearly 1.5 million miles, but the deal with Fiat Chrysler represents something a little different. For the first time, Google will work with the car manufacturer from start to finish, creating an automobile with the self-driving capabilities in-built. Not only will these purpose-built models be an improvement on the current Lexus cars, which very much look like a car with a sensor strapped to the roof, but also on Google’s own gumdrop-like test car. Google appear to have chosen the minivan because it represents a middle ground between the test models and the luxury prototypes, an everyday incarnation of cutting edge technology.
The benefits of properly executed autonomous driving could be huge. Google claim that 94% of accidents involve human error and, of that 1.5 million miles of testing, its cars have been involved in 17 accidents. Only in one of these cases did Google admit that its car was to blame, too, and the removal of human error could lead to smooth, efficient, safe traffic on the roads, with cars all aware of each other’s positions in a way human’s simply aren’t capable of. Google also claim that their cars have sensors than can detect objects - pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles, etc. - ‘as far as two football fields away in all directions.’ Safety is, of course, the element that will have to be most effectively demonstrated for the public to accept such potentially dangerous technology.
Earlier this year, we wrote about Fiat Chrysler’s worryingly limited plan for the future. The automotive giants had all-but ignored investment in autonomous driving and electric cars, in favour of an upturn in SUV and truck sales; a short-term outlook with little concern for the bigger picture. Alphabet’s announcement marks the world’s seventh largest automaker’s entry into the industry, despite chief executive Sergio Marchionne’s strong views towards the marriage of tech and car making. Once describing tech companies in the sector ‘disruptive interlopers,’ Marchionne questioned the quality of the cars they could create. Whatever change of heart or persuasive boardroom meeting led to the new deal, Fiat Chrysler’s entry into the world of autonomous driving has exciting implications.
But, as with any announcement that brings us one step closer to automated highways, it must be understood that the plan is a long term one. Incremental steps are being made, but ‘true’ autonomous driving is still some way from the road. BMW’s Ian Robertson said: ‘While the technology will advance, I think the legislation, the responsibility and the societal questions relating to a machine making decisions to do with life and death means we’re not quite ready for that.’ Apprehension will be very difficult to shift, and one fatal accident would set the industry back years. What is certain, though, is that the partnering of the biggest tech and automotive companies will only speed up the process, and that Google’s autonomous Chrysler will not be cutting edge news for long.