Friday, November 04, 2005

Self Driving Cars vs. Flying Cars

Alright, time for another Fat Knowledge "vs." battle.

Futurists seem to talk a lot about self driving cars and flying cars. I believe one of these will be common in 25 years while the other will always just be a toy for the extremely rich. In the audience participation part of this post, it is time for you to choose a camp right now. Ok, have you decided yet? No reading on until you have decided. Got one now? Ok, let see if you are right.

Flying cars will always be a toy for the rich, while self driving cars will become as common as cars are today. Here is why.

Here are the problems with flying cars. First, the gasoline issue. If you think Hummers are bad, flying cars will be much, much worse. There is no way you are going to be able to put a vehicle in the air for the same amount of energy you will use to roll it on the ground. A plane flying 100 people gets about 50 miles/passenger gallon. A bus carrying 100 people will get around 300 miles/passenger gallon. No way a flying car ever gets better or even nearly as good of gas mileage as a car. With the global crunch on oil, I don't see anyway we can greatly increase it with everyone flying their own car.

Second problem, where do you fly them? I see two ways to go here: either you can fly where ever you want or there are "traffic lanes", where you have to fly. If there are traffic lanes, what is the point of flying? You might as well be on the ground. If you can fly where ever you want, that seems scary. If these were popular think about how many of them would be in the air flying around. Now, not only would you have to watch for other flying cars in 2 dimensions but in 3. There are bound to be many more accidents with flying cars than regular cars. Would it be worth taking that extra risk to fly the car? I don't think so. But even as a non-flyer I would be in more risk. Everywhere I go I have to be careful of cars overhead that might get into an accident and crash land on me. Would anyone feel safe walking outside on a Saturday night with all the drunk flyers that you know would be out there?

Third problem, what happens when you run out of fuel, or if there is a mechanical problem that stops the engine? In a car you coast to a stop, potentially dangerous on the freeway, but in general not too bad. In the air, there are all sorts of problems. Will you be able to land right below you? What if you are over water? What if you are over people? What if you are up high?

Due to their increase in fuel usage and their increase in danger, flying cars will never be mainstream. Why are self driving cars the way of the future?

First, who likes driving in traffic? How great would it be to just get in your car, program it where to go and then sit back and read a book, watch TV, talk on the phone, or surf the internet? For those that commute an hour a day, that is a huge time savings.

Second, self driving cars will be safer than human drivers. We can already see where auto-pilots in planes are getting as good and maybe better than human pilots. It is only a matter of time before self-driving cars are better than humans. I know people will at first be afraid of entrusting their lives to a computer. But, people do it all the time with 16 year old drivers, and there is no way that they are safe. Giving up control is much more a psychological issue than a safety/risk issue. But, being able to use that time effectively will be a major reason to give up the control, plus the reality will be that the computer is a better driver. Auto companies have fears of litigation when they build them. But, if they can show that they are safer than normal drivers, it would be in the interest of the insurance companies to insure them. I know it sounds scary that people will be dying due to bugs in the software, but people are already dying by "bugs" in other peoples driving.

Third, the self driving feature in cars will become fairly cheap. This technology will follow the way of Moore's law and decrease in price exponentially over time. In 25 years I would think the self driving car option will be a $2,000 option. Just as air conditioning and radios have become standard issue, so will the self driving car feature.

Fourth, you can start to see the evolution/adoption curve starting to play out. First came the cruise control. Next, radar and infrared was added to see how close a car was to the one in front of it, so even on cruise control you won't hit the car in front of you. Then came the ultrasonic sensors so you won't hit anything when you back up. Then came the Japanese cars that will parallel park themselves. Now GM is using lidar in their Opel Vectra (not to be confused with ligers) that allows the car to tell if any cars are on the side of it.

So we have parking and driving on the freeway covered. We also have GPS and map software everywhere so figuring out how to get from one place to another is solved.

DARPA brought this all to the next level with their Grand Challenge. Last year no car was able finish the course. This year 4 were. This proves that cars can self navigate and avoid obstacles. And while the technology was impressive, it wasn't that impressive. The winner only used 7 Intel-based Pentium CPU's for the brains of the operation.

I see long haul trucking as one of the first places to use this (and possibly one of the first to go completely without any drivers at all). They are already expensive, they are used more hours out of the year than any normal car and if they can slightly reduce the number of accidents, or improve efficiency the upgrade will pay for itself.

5 years from now we have cars that have intelligent cruise control, can parallel park themselves, and can follow GPS instructions on high end cars. Basically they can more or less drive themselves. 10 years from now it becomes more common and possibly it is legal for a self driving car to run (as long as a driver is in the car).

So, there you have it. In 20 years, self driving cars will be as common as air-conditioning or the radio, while flying cars will be as rare as private jets.


Sunil said...

Self driving all the way... between GPS nav systems that know where you are and some of the advances in radar/laser systems, the cars will be driving themselves. There's an article in one of the car magazines that talks about how Honda and Toyota are creating cars that can "talk" to each other.

Plus, think of a traditional five-car pile-up on the highway... now imagine that happening 300 feet above ground: each of those five cars could take out another 1-2 cars each on their way back to terra firma. Ay caramba!

Hedtke Online said...

I for one will still prefer the old fashioned direct drive by human mode. I can just see all the havoc that can be caused by a rogue human cutting in and out of traffic, swerving all over the place and all these "bots" trying to avoid contact. As another human controlled vehicle, I can feel more self assured that I will continue on my self controlled path while the "bots" more than likely will be "tied up" in some form of traffic jam!

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