Our Vehicular Future

Buying a new car introduced me to the next-generation safety systems. All cars have seat restraints, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and other such improvements from the early days. We take these upgrades for granted now, but I remember a time when disconnecting the seat belt buzzer was the first thing people did to a new car! Now we have computer-assisted driving that can protect us from inadvertent lane changes, alert us to cross traffic, and even take control of the brakes and steering in an emergency.

We opted not to pay for those upgrades in our vehicle choice, but that’s mostly due to the cost difference, and that fact that we don’t drive a lot. And we don’t typically drive on crowded freeways or in dense urban environments where the safety features would play better. Also, there was a certain annoyance factor that was part of the decision. There are a lot more distractions in today’s automobiles! Seems like we need the computers to protect us from our distractions. I will say that I really like backup cameras—seems like every car has those now.

With all the talk and hype about autonomous driving you don’t hear much about the successes. It is going to be a while before a robot can take you in your car on a nice, safe trip. Right now the cars just aren’t smart enough for prime time. But there’s one place where autonomous vehicles are not just the future, but the living present, and that is in mining.

Caterpillar has self-driving trucks, big massive ore-haulers, that work not only continuously but safely as well. They’ve recently reached a milestone at a mine in Western Australia: a billion tons of ore hauled successfully without an operator in the vehicles. They expect to have 175 autonomous trucks in operation at that site by next year. These are seriously big trucks:

cat 2

But it’s the software that makes them go, and Caterpillar designed theirs to work with other brands of vehicles, too. Smart move. Lots of companies make mining trucks.

Another place where robot drivers are establishing themselves is agriculture. Autonomous tractors can do much of the work on a modern farm. What was science fiction when I was a boy is actually happening in the real world today.

Of course no one wants the robot-computer system to take over completely. The Boeing 737-MAX tragedies were caused by a “glitch” in the software. That’s a geek word, and it fits, but it seems too cavalier. That problem in the programming sent hundreds of innocent people to their deaths.

But people died when only humans flew planes. Now they are such complex beasts the pilots have to have the tech to help them. Our cars, it seems, are becoming like that as well.

I want the computer-robots to take over. I want to go on long drives where I don’t have to drive at all, where I can just stretch out in the back, sip whiskey, smoke a fattie, and watch the scenery. I doubt I’ll be around when that becomes a reality, but it sure sounds good.

The people who are mining the minerals we need to build cars and roads and the folks growing the food we need to live are going autonomous. Why should they have all the fun?

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