Elevating the argument for driverless cars

Earlier in our history, a certain type of vehicle made a huge transition from human to autonomous operation. The change wasn’t easy; some even rebelled against it but, ultimately as it always does, automation won over the crowd. These days, most of us don’t even consider that we’re taking a ride that is almost always totally out of our hands.

The aforementioned vehicle, of course, is the humble lift and its very successful leap from human to machine control could be seen as a harbinger for the coming wave of autonomous cars.

This transition for lifts was made largely through effective marketing, hand-in-hand with design.

The earliest auto-lifts were built in such a way as to put the rider at ease. They featured rides that went as smoothly as possible, recorded instructions/warnings in a low, soothing voice (including a greeting upon entry – “this is an automatic elevator. Please press the button for the floor you desire”). Other comforts were a big red button in case of emergency and, later on, the notorious “elevator music”, ultra-soft adaptations of familiar pop tunes. It was all crafted to reduce stress and anxiety to assure passengers the lift will get them in one piece to the correct floor and the accompanying marketing liked to stress this aspect.

Clever manufacturers featured adverts showing old women and small children using lifts with minimal effort and expertise. Why, it’s so easy, even an old person or a kid could figure it out. A more subtle, yet no less effective, message being imparted was your aged and little ones are safe in our vehicles.

This cosseting is already very apparent in the early days of the autonomous car. Which is understandable; after all, consumers are being asked to make a similar technological jump.

The prototype of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is small, bubble-shaped and cute – a modest, unthreatening conveyance that will give you a clean ride and get you where you need to go. As with old lifts, a soft and gentle pre-recorded voice issues updates from the car and the occasional warning message. In another lift-like touch, the Google car has a big red button to halt the ride in case of emergency.

What the vehicle doesn’t have is a steering wheel – it’s going the full autonomous route, with the clear implication that no human is to attempt any of the driving. That missing wheel will be jarring to first time riders, just as we can imagine the lack of an operator surprised lift occupants several decades back.

General Motors (GM) has been in this skunkworks project too and at the moment is wedded to a small/cute aesthetic not unlike Google’s. The company’s concept driverless vehicle, the Chevrolet EN-V, is an electric automobile that bears a resemblance to Mercedes-Benz’s Smart Car. The most immediately apparent difference from the Google hardware is the inclusion of a traditional steering wheel, for good reason – the EN-V can be driven manually as well as autonomously. The steering wheel and drive-yourself option are clear nods to comfort and security – it’s just like your old car!

Meanwhile, Audi might be progressing rapidly on what they term ‘piloted driving’ but they’re very much keeping the comfort factor in mind. At the beginning of this year the company’s autonomous prototype ‘Jack’ transported a pack of motoring journalists from San Francisco to Las Vegas on a driverless voyage. At the end of it, though, Audi board member for technical development, Ulrich Hackenberg, made sure to emphasise that Jack can get passengers from here to there in one piece. Audi’s self-driving boy and his brethren are “what we will see in the future. [Piloted driving] is a feature which increases the safety of the vehicle,” he said.

Not every company involved in autonomous driving technology is convinced it must be pitched in this way, of course. Bosch, which is doing well selling its sensors and other functionalities for driverless products and solutions, touts how convenient its goods can be when packed into your favourite vehicle. On the web pages for its mobility solutions business division, home of its driverless auto efforts, it features a brief video showing a test autonomous drive in a Bosch-equipped Tesla. One single click of the turn indicator from the driver (correction: person occupying the driver’s seat) and the car is off on its route, slowing, accelerating, braking and steering as necessary. Every function is automated.

Bosch’s video aside, in the contest of safety versus convenience in these early years, the clear victor is the former. Yet, both will fall away as the public gets more comfortable with the technology. Before long, driverless driving will be the norm and, like lifts, we won’t concern ourselves with the technology moving our vehicles. At that point, manufacturers and suppliers will drive on to other ways of selling and marketing their products and solutions.


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