Noack: Driverless cars are coming, but slowly

William H. Noack
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Ransom Olds was a tinkerer. But when Olds rolled out his first horseless curved-dash runabout, many of the Lansing folks were aghast. They were worried, not because the contraption might actually run into people walking in the roadways, but because its noisy clattering and backfiring would scare the hell out of horses.

And around the turn of the century, when Olds was doing his tinkering, horses were still king of the road. The message of that day and age was clear: don’t disturb the horses.

The early pioneers of the auto industry faced and overcame tough challenges every step of the way. Scaring horses was just among the first. As the industry matured over the years, public issues like highway safety, the environment and the need for greater fuel efficiency were always steep mountains to be climbed.

Now the industry seems poised to enter a whole new realm of technology where the vehicle will actually drive itself. But the goal of autonomous driving is not a new one.

At the New York World’s Fair of 1939, visitors to GM’s Futurama pavilion saw how an automated highway system might work. Envisioned by famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, the Futurama included a display of some 50,000 cars, many of them operating without driver assistance for maximum traffic flow and efficiency. Today, many auto historians credit Bel Geddes with conceiving what later became the modern interstate highway system.

In the late 1950s, GM, working with RCA, experimented with self-driving cars using wire buried in the pavement and magnetic pickup receivers in cars. While the driverless car might have been beyond our technological reach until recent times, it had not escaped the thinking of earlier auto visionaries.

Automobile autonomy is coming — but it’s coming slowly. A recent issue of Automobile Magazine was devoted almost entirely to the subject. It quoted Steve Shladover, transportation researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, as being somewhat skeptical, given the enormous technological, political, economic and legislative hurdles.

“I tell adult audiences not to expect it in their lifetimes,“ Shladover says. “Merely dealing with weather conditions and traffic conditions is immensely complicated. The software requirements are extremely daunting. Nobody even has the ability to verify and validate the software. I estimate that the challenge of fully automated cars is 10 orders of magnitude more complicated than fully automated commercial aviation.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already considering measures that would apply to driverless systems being developed by U.S. manufacturers. Recently, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind was quoted by Reuters, saying: “The first time a self-driving car hits somebody, and someone gets hurt or is fatally injured, we’re going to get the phone call.”

Most forgotten in all the driverless car talk has been has been the person who will have to buy them: the consumer. The old sales slogan “fun to drive” really does have meaning to many in the car-buying public. It’s important that manufacturers not forget the millions of Americans for whom driving a car is a pleasure, not a burden.

About the time Olds was building his runabout, a fellow named Ford down near Dearborn had become fascinated with a steam-operated thrashing machine. Ford, who didn’t care much for farm work himself, had been turning a question over and over in his mind: if a steam-driven thrasher could move — however slowly — from one farm site to another, why couldn’t a smaller machine be built that would move people around to destinations of their choosing?

The thinkers and engineers who are building driverless cars are doing so perched on the shoulders of far-sighted men like Olds and Ford. The modern-day tinkerers who are building tomorrow’s industry are dedicated, determined and believe they’ve never met a problem that can’t be solved.

That’s why I wouldn’t bet against the driverless car. It might take a while, but it’s coming. Fasten your seat belt.

William H. Noack is a retired General Motors executive.

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