Intelligent Energy

What autopilot shares with seatbelts: Big Brother will require it in your car.

What autopilot shares with seatbelts: Big Brother will require it in your car.

Posting in Energy

MIT says self-driving vehicles will be a mandated safety feature. European automakers VW, BMW are well down the road. Another reason to provide cars like cellphones, 'free' in a service package.

And turn on auto-pilot! Image from Wikimedia.

Automated driving capability will eventually join seatbelts and airbags as a government-mandated safety feature in your car.

So says MIT's Technology Review, which notes that European car makers including Volkswagen and BMW are well down the road to delivering various driverless features, and will add them incrementally over the years, starting with electronic co-pilots that assist with safety and convenience tasks such as parallel parking.

"'Driverless' technology will initially require a driver," the MIT story says. "And it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did: first as an expensive option in luxury cars, but eventually as a safety feature required by governments."

As the story notes, VW and fellow German car maker BMW are among those demonstrating driverless cars. While Google has received plenty of headlines for its own demonstration version, the Europeans have been hard at work, it points out.

BMW's i3 electric car will automatically slow down as traffic builds. Photo from BMW.

VW sent an Audi TTS racing up Pikes Peak in 2010, sans human hands. BMW already offers optional features including blind spot alerts and night vision assistance that detects those hard-to-see pedestrians, for $1,350 and $2,600, respectively. It plans to add several automated features to its upcoming i3 series of electric cars, including "adaptive cruise control," which slows the car as traffic builds.  One high end Mercedes-Benz alerts a driver when he or she is leaving a lane, and helps steer the car back.

The market for "driver assistance" features was $10 billion last year according to ABI Research, and will leap to $130 billion by 2016 as they play a greater role in avoiding traffic accidents, the story notes.

Free Cars

To many people, putting "driverless" and "safety" in the same sentence will seem oxymoronic. The odd coupling will instead conjure up nightmare visions of anything but "safe" - perhaps of an empty vehicle careening helter-skelter down the highway.

I believe that this technology will indeed have its day, full-on. To help usher it in, why not sell the car as a service, eh, vehicle? As I've said in previous SmartPlanet posts, with cars morphing into digital devices on wheels, vendors could sell them as they do mobile phones today. Provide the car for "free" when the customer commits to, say, two years of service.

This cat could be out of a job. Photo from sofetechdesigns.com

The price would depend on levels of service. A basic package might include GPS, under-the-hood diagnostics and onboard Internet. Somewhere in the mix could be electricity for electric vehicles, and fuel economy assistance. A deluxe package could include the whole shebang: driverless operation of the vehicle. Then you could watch the Super Bowl streamed live to the console screen - Deluxe would include a service called Broadband Blaster, which gets you more than your average cyber surf experience, you see.

Utilities, Internet companies, telecom companies, even traditional car companies pray tell, would vie for the business. You could be just as likely to get your car from, say, Pacific Gas & Electric as from the Ford dealership next to the mall. Or from Comcast or Vodafone.

While I'm on this line of thought, which admittedly resides somewhere between reality and flight of fancy (although closer to the former): Prepare for the Apple iCar or the Google SearchMobile. The forays by those two companies into telecommunications crescendoed with them offering phones. As the Net now meets transportation, wouldn't a next logical step be for Apple and Google to slap together rubber, glass and steel (or carbon fiber or whatever)? Toonces the Driving Cat, make way for Moe the Motoring Mouse Device.

The auto and Internet industries are on a convergence track that will more than mirror the ongoing universal marriage of the Internet and media. If Big Brother is going to mandate the technology, then we might as well get creative with the business model.

More free cars, hands-free locomotion, and vehicles with good connections:

Share this

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure