Riding the (driverless) highway to the future

Jay Iorio, Innovation Director, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)

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As a host of technologies converge in the home and workplace, it is anybody’s guess how they might play out over the next decades. The Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, body computing, artificial intelligence, and synthetic sensory enhancements (e.g., augmented reality, virtual reality) will serve to make our homes and personal spaces intelligent in meaningful ways―responsive, adaptive, able to learn, interactive, predictive. Our spaces will become extensions of ourselves.

Similarly, many of the same transformative technologies are allowing the public space to be re-imagined. Much of what is called IoT is starting to transform city streets, public buildings, and ultimately everyplace else into a smart environment that could learn to respond as an extension of its inhabitants.

Many of these technologies could help eliminate considerations of geography and physical distance, and over time, digital interactions will no doubt evolve to become indistinguishable from actual physical presence―a kind of telepresence singularity, after which the simulated will increasingly dominate the physical.

That said, however, people will always need to travel from one place to another in the physical world. Big-city freeways and airports will always be crowded, no matter how widespread and superior virtual reality conferencing becomes or how thoroughly day-to-day activities become largely replaced with digitally supercharged facsimiles.

A plausible vision of the next generation might include a coherently “smart” built environment―from the home, to the workplace, to the supermarket―connected so that the overall effect might be something like having a ubiquitous personal assistant.

But there’s one piece missing in this scenario: how do we travel―physically―through this smart environment? How do we get from an intelligent home, to an intelligent office space, to an intelligent department store…intelligently?

As it turns out, the same technologies that are digitally transforming the physical world are causing a similar revolution in the automotive world, in the form of the autonomous vehicle. Autonomous vehicles might take the form of self-driving cars that look a lot like an average car today or eventually they could become something entirely different― perhaps some private-vehicle/mass-transit hybrid that uses existing infrastructure as a basis for new modes of high-speed urban travel, like a train system with individually controllable cars.

The autonomous vehicle would be conceived as part of a larger system that could include not only the road infrastructure and other vehicles but also all the intelligent structures and objects along the route. In a sense, the vehicle would become a moving piece of a much bigger machine, like an elevator in a skyscraper. The car would become a mobile piece of one’s home.

In fact, it might make no more sense to own a vehicle that it would to own a train car on the subway. Transportation would be easily available―safe, private, and quick―and it would require less engagement than riding a moving sidewalk. Car transportation might become a service paid for monthly like a gas bill. Watching a movie, writing messages, or having a conversation or meeting could continue as a chunk of the house basically broke off and took passengers where they needed to go, carrying with it the home’s accumulated intelligence and knowledge about those aboard.

Removing the driver from the equation and putting intelligent systems in charge could radically alter how efficiently, safely, and pleasantly people could move through an urban space. From the passenger’s point of view, a trip across town would be like a long elevator ride; activities could continue en route. A vehicle might be more like a tiny apartment than a 2015 car, optimized for creating a seamless path between intelligent physical spaces.

Given the centrality of the car in modern life, and given the ongoing technology convergence that is digitally enhancing our physical environment, it makes sense that the automobile’s function would be transformed into what amounts to a mobile piece of infrastructure that integrates the home with the rest of the world.

Tomorrow’s vehicle isn’t the flying car, our most enduring retro symbol of the future that promises a superhuman freedom of movement merely suggested by terrestrial vehicles. Rather, the future envisioned today is the connected car, a piece of the common infrastructure that eliminates drudgery, accidents, and wasted time.

These contrasting visions of the future reveal something about the eras that generated them. The flying-car vision casts technology as the enabler of spectacular individual liberation, while more modern visions of the future involve networking, intelligence, and automation, a holistic path that promises to integrate the transportation infrastructure with our homes, our larger environments, our bodies, and our unique, individual constellations of data and content.

Please let us know what you think the future holds for vehicles and how technology will impact our daily lives.