Something strange happens when you look into a crystal ball.
For some, it becomes easier to imagine roadblocks that don’t actually exist or that are not really insurmountable. Maybe it’s a way to create more hype by painting a dire picture or to build up a taller mountain to scale as a way to raise even more investment money. Who knows? It’s a problem I’ve seen many times, where the naysayers get most of the attention in tech.
With connected cars, the same problem exists. It does seem like a big challenge: reinventing the most common form of transportation ever created. The death toll on U.S. highways increased by 10 percent in 2015, and the U.S. has the highest roadway fatality rate in the world. In 2016, the increase was 7 percent or about 40,000 fatalities. The culprit in many cases is distracted driving. The urgency behind making cars more intelligent is real, but there are still those who predict doom and gloom — that we’ll need a brand new highway system or that older cars will be left out of the equation.
These myths about connected cars and autonomous driving come up frequently in discussions about lack of progress, what will really happen in cities like Las Vegas or LA when cars become more connected, and which companies will be involved from a technology standpoint. No, it doesn’t help when one innovator in autonomous cars sues another tech firm. Yet progress is possible. These myths are mostly a figment of our collective imagination and won’t necessarily cause major delays.
1. We will need all new roads
Even if you butcher the Chevy tagline to “find new roads” and think that has anything to do with connected cars, there’s a myth that autonomous driving and connected cars will need their own highway or even their own lane. This myth is sometimes purported by the people trying to advance the connected car revolution — the argument being that it will be easier to create regulations that govern self-driving cars if they have their own highway or lane.
The problem is that it’s unreasonable. (My guess is that some of these folks live in California, where there are highways dedicated to trucks dricing between LA and San Francisco. It’s not true in most states.) AI in cars should be smart enough to operate on any road. If we start assuming that more advanced cars will need special treatment, it means they aren’t that advanced. And, the one unchanging reality of the transportation industry, really since the 70s, is that you have to stick with what you already have. The minute you start talking about a major revamping of the existing highway system is the same minute legislators, city officials, and drivers start losing interest.
2. Only new cars can benefit
It’s true that a new car — with adaptive cruise control, sensors that warn you about an obstruction when you back out of your driveway, and the ability to keep you in your lane — has major advantages over that 1999 Honda Civic with a failing muffler. Yet, if you carry this logic to it’s eventual conclusion, anything old — like a laptop, a router, or a smartphone — becomes archaic. We all know you can “resurrect” a laptop that’s a few years old, maybe by installing a light version of Linux if you have to. And do we really think an Android phone from 2014 has lost all value? There is usually a way to make old tech become viable again.
The same is true with older cars. One company, called Navdy, makes a heads-up display you mount above the steering wheel and can see navigation routes, interact with Apple Siri, and have all of your incoming text messages read aloud. Indeed, most of the research into self-driving cars does not involve a brand new model. Google usually retrofitted cars from Toyota and Lexus with autonomous tech, and the cars were not always brand new off the lot.
3. The infrastructure is too archaic
I’ve hit a few potholes up here in Minneapolis. It’s true that highways and bridges are desperately in need of repairs. Yet, AI in cars can overcome this obstacle. One example of this is a company called Savari and their vehicle-to-vehicle tech. I’ve seen how it works in a demo at CES 2017 last month, and the wireless equipment added to intersections and in the car itself does not require a complete overhaul within a city or on the highway. In fact, some of the equipment looks exactly like the transmitters used at intersections that warn you today about an ambulance approaching. The wireless signal for this, called DSRC, was invented in 1999! A Cadillac from way back in 2006 could use it in a prototype model. Bolting on some transmitters at intersections is not an impossible task — it’s certainly easier than fixing potholes.
4. The mistakes an AI makes could cause more accidents
This one always gets me going. I’ve been told by friends and colleagues that autonomous driving tech is too frightening and untested. You know what’s far more frightening to me? A future where we don’t let cars scan all around the road, make split decisions in ways humans can’t do (especially when the kids are screaming or the windshield is covered in ice), and rely mostly on intuition and a sixth sense. That has not worked out. I witnessed a bike accident once, and last summer I hit a deer going 55 miles-per-hour. Modern cars can sense obstructions, brake automatically, and even veer out of the way to avoid a fender-bender. It’s not about perfect AI. It’s mostly about AI giving us a bit more vigilance.