Opinion

Opinion | Robin Washington

Driverless: your next car may be your last

President Barack Obama looked over a car with driverless technology at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 20, 2016.

Stephen Crowley/NYT

President Barack Obama looked over a car with driverless technology at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 20, 2016.

Every time I rent a car, I learn something about the future.

A few weeks ago, it was finding out the car was speaking for me.

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“[Auto-Reply] I’m driving right now — I’ll get back to you later,” the car texted to a friend who was trying to send directions to my phone.

I had tethered my phone to cars before, on other rentals and on my daughter’s crossover. But none of them had sent messages out (a Verizon representative told me this time was probably due to an update I got in the middle of the night.)

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Other technological advances I learned courtesy of the rental pool are mirrors that unfold when you press “unlock’’ on the remote (make sure you don’t park in too tight a space), seats that configure when the ignition is turned on (which I discovered after asking the rental guy to come out and locate a nonexistent lever), and any number of key fob adventures (the good thing is, you can’t lock it in the car.)

Because my wife and I will probably be looking for a new car this year — we have an ’05 Kia Sportage and ’97 Miata — it occurred to me: Could our next car be our last?

“Good question,” says Brian Johnson, a Chicago-based analyst for Barclays and author of “Disruptive Mobility,” a report on the impact of driverless cars, some of which are already here and changing the idea of what a car does, and whether you should even own one.

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It’s not just that cars will drive themselves, but that they’ll take you where you need to go and drive on to the next passenger, rarely bothering with parking spaces. With the pickup charge for an Uber Without a Dude far less than car payments, and zilch for insurance and repairs, who would want to buy one (or for that matter, a house with a garage?)

If ending America’s love affair with the car seems unthinkable, consider what we like about them: cupholders in just the right place, presets on the radio, and the aforementioned seat adjustments — all accomplished simply enough by an app the moment you order a ride.

The transition could easily happen over 20 years, Johnson says, basing his conclusion in part on the last great shift in personal transportation, from the horse to the car. He plots the most dramatic change between 1920 (which he labels “peak horse”), with an equine population of 25 million versus 8 million cars, to 1940, with less than 14 million horses and 27 million cars.

“Would the horse-to-car [transition] have been faster if it weren’t for two world wars and the Depression?” he asks, noting that smartphones have rendered any number of devices obsolete in less than half that time.

As for any car I buy now, he says: “Let’s imagine it’s 2030. Why would anyone buy a used [non-self-driving] Toyota or Honda or Chevy or Ford?

“The answer is, they probably wouldn’t. But then the question is, what happens to it? If there isn’t a demand, the price goes down.”

Those cars, he envisions, might be sent to the developing world, where plenty of drivers are available, diminishing the economic benefit of driverless cars in those markets.

So the future is coming — but not yet, says Daniela Rus, an MIT robotics professor conducting a driverless car project with Toyota in Singapore.

“We have the basic technology. However, there are still many problems that nobody knows how to solve,” she says. “Snow is a particularly challenging issue. Fog. In general, conditions that are difficult for humans are super-difficult for the self-driving car technologies right now.”

Her project, she says, is not to get rid of cars but to turn them into “guardian angels.”

“When you drive, the car will watch over you. The car could see around the corner. The car could talk to other cars and get advance notification of what might be happening on the road. And it could get connected to your calendar and help you, like a friend or an assistant.”

Yikes! Does that mean sending messages? Just tell me what it’s saying first.

Robin Washington writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.
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