June 19, 2013

The last drivers?

Every once in a while, hubby comes to me with a guest post idea. I have yet to turn him down. In fact, I wish he wrote more often. I love having him here. After all, he is a major character in our family's story. I mention him often. I just posted my annual tribute to him for Father's Day. So I love when he comes to this space to share his own perspective on things.

Today, he is writing about a topic he is very passionate and knowledgable about - cars. He not only loves them, he has worked in automobile insurance for more than 25 years. He wonders if our daughter will be part of the last generation of drivers.

Please welcome the wonderful man in my life...

I love thinking about the future world my daughter will inherit, and I try to imagine what technology she will be using. Most efforts to predict the future fall flat, but one thing I am certain of is that cars will drive themselves. This isn’t sci-fi; it isn’t a Jetsons flying car fantasy. It’s already here.

Google, Volkswagen, Audi and GM are openly developing cars that operate without human intervention. Google has logged about 400,000 driver-free miles. General Motors says that “Super Cruise” will be available in Cadillac models by the end of this decade. It is a semi-automatic system intended only for freeways. Driver attention is still required, but the handwriting is on the wall.

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Changing attitudes towards cars and driving will help to facilitate the coming changes. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that 30.5% of 19-year-olds did not have a driver’s license. This floors me. When I was a teen everyone wanted that ticket to freedom on his or her 16th birthday. But today’s teen has a constant link to the internet with their smart phone, iPod touch, or tablet. Who needs to burn expensive fuel when you can use whatever social media site your parents aren’t using to virtually hang out?

The rise of iDevices and the recent Great Recession have changed teens’ views of cars as well. Car ownership used to be the holy grail for teens, a desire that filled many a summer job. Now they want an iPad, with 4G please. The automobile is no longer a dream machine; it’s a washing machine. An appliance. A tool to get from point A to point B. Generation Y (aka Millennials) has none of the automotive passion of the Baby Boomers. Without the emotional attachment to driving, they will be ready to hand over the responsibility to the machine.

Photo Credit

Once self-driving cars are on the roads in high numbers, the societal changes will be enormous – and not entirely predictable from a 2013 vantage point. Robotic cars should make crashes nearly disappear – and with them the 1.2 million vehicular deaths worldwide each year. Cars will be in constant communication with the surrounding cars, allowing vehicles to travel crowded freeways at speeds unthinkable today. Will garbage trucks, taxis - even trailer-trailer rigs – need human drivers at all? Will DUI become a thing of the past? Will the elderly have independence well after their driving abilities are gone?

Societal upheaval of this magnitude will not come easily; many industries will be impacted. Automobile insurance will be fundamentally changed. Hospital emergency rooms will see significant economic impacts. Body shops will almost cease to exist. Personal injury is a huge industry, and politically powerful trial lawyers are not going to let their livelihoods slip away quietly. Self-driving cars will be portrayed as four-wheeled Terminators, complete with red glowing eyes eagerly waiting to kill your children. State and federal laws will have to be written and rewritten; new legal doctrines will be needed. But as these cars take to the roads in other, less-litigious countries the safety benefits will become obvious.

While the technology to create fully autonomous cars will be in place in 10 to 15 years, I do not expect to see significant numbers of those cars here in the U.S. for 20 to 25 years. So my daughter will need to learn how to drive, and I will teach her well. She will learn how to drive a manual transmission (if I can find one 12 years from now). She will learn how to check the fluids, change a tire, and jump-start a battery. She will learn how to drive defensively, and she will learn how to handle emergency situations. She may decide one day to own a self-driving car, but she will know enough about driving to be the robot’s harshest critic.

Based on the above timeline, the children born today will still need to learn to drive. But their generation may be the last drivers. 

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