Autonomous Cars — The Times, They Are A-Changin’…

Image Credit: Tesla

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Bob Dylan wrote those words over 50 years ago and they are just as true today. Former GM, Ford, and Chrysler executive Bob Lutz wrote a column recently for Automotive News proclaiming that the internal combustion engine and current cars that require a conscious, aware driver will soon be extinct. Lutz claims that even the OE companies he once worked for will soon be building self-driving cars just for large corporations like Google, Fed-Ex, UPS, Lyft and others because owning a car will no longer be necessary. And the internal combustion engine will likely become relegated to museum pieces instead of as sources of power.

I have some trouble accepting this brave new vision of the future. I can remember reading books as a kid in the early ‘60s that proclaimed by the turn of the 21st Century we’d have already colonized the moon and that everybody would be piloting flying cars. Somehow that hasn’t happened. Right now just making sure our bridges don’t fall down seems like a difficult task, so everyone riding in autonomous cars in 2037 seems equally far-fetched.
The prediction that we are on the precipice of a huge technology streak is certainly realistic. A good friend who has 30 years of experience designing EFI systems recently showed me his new electronic black box that will certainly shake things up in that corner of the business and it all has to do with a technology leap that would have been unheard of even ten years ago. That part is real.

It appears that we are in a similar place now to where the main industrialized countries in the world were 100 years ago. In 1918, the automobile had barely matured beyond the rich man’s toy. Much of the world still relied on its 14th Century horse-drawn ways. Local laws demanded that driving an automobile within the city limits required a man to walk in front of the car waving a red flag to warn riders and pedestrians of its approach.

The 21st Century version of this might be closer to how a ‘60s muscle car would integrate into a 2030-era boulevard dominated by autonomous cars. It could be similar to attempting to ride a horse in today’s urban traffic snarl. You could probably get away with this since it isn’t illegal. But that doesn’t mean that attempting to do so is all that safe.

Lutz’s vision of the future has cars running down the freeway at triple digit speeds barely inches apart from each other because some master computer is managing everything. A question that comes to mind is “Who is going to pay for all that infrastructure and technology?” While discussing this at a recent bench racing session, another friend offered this bothersome question – “If we’re all in self-driving cars and an accident does occur – who’s at fault?” I’m not a lawyer but if I don’t own the car and I’m not in control of the vehicle – then I certainly am not going to be responsible for an accident. It would appear that this rather sticky precedent would have to be settled long before many autonomous vehicles would hit the road.

Image credit: Northeastern University

I have to admit that there do appear to be some advantages to autonomous vehicles. Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but at least in Los Angeles over the past 30-plus years that the quality of drivers has declined sharply. They are either overly-aggressive or so absorbed in their cell phone that driving has earned a tertiary spot in their increasingly limited attention capacity. It’s sometimes downright scary. So from that standing, I would love to see these people removed from controlling a 3,500-pound projectile bearing down on me at 60 mph aimed directly at my rear bumper.

I hesitate to pull out my somewhat cloudy version of a crystal ball since I’m the same guy who pronounced that while the Viper prototype was cool – “They’ll never build it.” But if pressed to predict, I think the internal combustion engine is far from dead. Sure, it’s not really efficient but it has some great aspects that will take some real engineering expertise to overcome before it is replaced. But then, I still like tuning carburetors, so what do I know?

— Jeff

About the author

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, a 35-year veteran of automotive journalism, comes to Power Automedia after serving as the senior technical editor at Car Craft magazine. An Iowa native, Smith served a variety of roles at Car Craft before moving to the senior editor role at Hot Rod and Chevy High Performance, and ultimately returning to Car Craft. An accomplished engine builder and technical expert, he will focus on the tech-heavy content that is the foundation of EngineLabs.
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