Travel 101 

How Will Autonomous Cars Change America?

FutureCar 2020

2020 will start a new automotive era. That's when Mercedes, Nissan, Tesla, GM and others will deliver the future with autonomous vehicles that safely drive themselves. They'll feature existing "new" ideas: on-board computers, hybrid powertrains, panoramic sky view ceilings, GPS, LED mood lighting, digital dashboards, infotainment systems, satellite TV and the internet. Adding fully reclining flat-bed seats, drive-by-wire and smart window technology will physically transform vehicles and how we use them not just for our own personal use, but to chauffer our children to school or to serve as long-distance overnight cruisers or delivery vehicles. We will be able to choose to drive or be autonomously chauffeured. No longer concerned with driver fatigue, we will have even more freedom to explore this magnificent country. All this will revolutionize our lives...

Imagine it's a Friday morning in Atlanta in 2020. The neighbor's autonomous SUV takes their teens to school. Later, it will take them to ballet, soccer and back home. Now it's your turn. Destination: the office, located 45 minutes away. Your autonomous car drives you there while you sip coffee and read the news. You smile, knowing that you've gained 300 hours of relaxation time per year being driven instead of driving on your commute. In the afternoon, it picks up the groceries you've ordered online then returns to await you.

After work you unleash your inner fighter pilot to drive home on the fun roads, using the drive-by-wire joystick on the armrest to control acceleration, braking and turning. Virtual controls dot the touch-screen dash, and you have full control like in a "normal" vehicle.

After dinner, you and your spouse pack overnight bags for Miami, 660 miles away. At 10:00 pm, you tell the autopilot your destination, and it goes. You electrically tint the smart windows for privacy, but open the giant open sky to enjoy a sky full of stars. Tiny LEDs simulate stars on ceiling. But you could have tinted the smart windows and the sky view to simulate a sunny day, palm trees, stormy weather, etc. Variable color LED mood lighting beautifies the foot wells, cup holders, door handles and more.

The experience is first class, serene, luxurious and blissful. You unfold polished wood tray tables stowed in the armrests, drink champagne, chat and read books. Later, you flatten your leather seats and bolsters and raise the footrests! The "beds" join together, and you snuggle to watch a streamed movie on the windshield's interior. The climate control changes ambient and seat temperatures throughout the night.

The vehicle accelerates, brakes and maneuvers safely, reliably and effortlessly through any weather, avoiding vehicles, pedestrians, animals and any other problems. It "thinks" and reacts to potential problems faster than you (or your neighbor's teens) ever could. At one intersection, a driver runs a red light and barrels at you from the side. Your vehicle weighs many options, accelerates quickly and averts disaster. It protects you and earns insurance discounts.

By 6:00 am, you've arrived stress-free at a Miami breakfast diner. You eat and refuel. You averaged 50 mpg. At $4/gallon, your fuel costs just over $50. The alternative, a pair of last-minute economy class plane tickets, would have cost $1,600. You saved money, avoided a crowded airplane, tiny seats and grumpy passengers, and you didn't need a rental. That's heaven. You shower and change at a truck stop, and start sight-seeing at 8:30 am.

Unlike using people-movers, trains or buses, you can go anywhere and depart anytime. The next day, after consulting the infotainment system, you decide to drive up the coast to Charleston. You set the seats to beach chair configuration, relax, enjoy a good book, the conversation and the majestic scenery...

Of course, automation will benefit all vehicles types. RVs will cruise from one stunning national park to another overnight as their owners sleep, and eighteen-wheelers, delivery vehicles, taxis and limos will drive themselves. Family friendly vehicles will have four or more lie-flat seats. Think of the flexibility; think of the freedom.

And think of the safety. Annually, about 33,000 Americans are killed and 2.2 million are injured by motor vehicles. But autonomous vehicles won't get drowsy, suffer driver distractions or drive drunk. Thus these horrific numbers will decrease as more autonomous vehicles get on the road.

Costly features such as lie-flat seats and smart windows will probably start in premium luxury vehicles, but then filter down to the mid-price market like ABS, airbags and other technologies we now take for granted. Autonomous vehicles will carry a price premium, but this should decrease rapidly and cost far less than a salaried chauffeur.

Enjoy the future. Narayan Sengupta, January 2014

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