The racing legend weighs in on the future of driving.
fully autonomous car no later than 2019, while Volvo and Audi boast cars that can brake, accelerate and steer for themselves in highway traffic. And, of course, there is Google, with its fleet of smiley-faced autonomous vehicles that have already clocked more than a million road miles along the streets of Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas.
“Fully autonomous technology is going to be a reality in the next five years, maybe even faster,” says Ken Washington, Ford’s vice-president of research and advanced engineering. “So what happens when the conversation shifts from ‘fun to drive’ to ‘fun to ride’?” he asks. “The role of the driver is going to fundamentally shift.” Aside from questions of whether these artificial-intelligence-powered machines will join together and try to kill us all, Terminator- style (they won’t, says Washington), the idea of letting a car do the driving poses some interesting questions for driver and pedestrian alike. Top of Washington’s mind is not if the technology will work but whether people are actually going to be ready to trust it.
The next day, sitting behind the wheel of a new Ford Fusion, I get a chance to decide for myself. Watching the steering wheel whirl around on its own while the car slides itself precisely into the parking spot is a bit disconcerting at first, but my trepidation doesn’t last long. I’m a decent driver but not a great parallel parker—it often takes me two or three tries to get it right. I quickly realize that I’d be happy to never have to manually parallel park a car again. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Self-parking technology has been around in some form or another for a decade, but Ford has been aggressively rolling it out across its fleet, making it more widely available than ever before.
Of course, letting a car park for you is one thing; having a nap while the car drives you to work through urban gridlock is another entirely. Perhaps I’m too trusting, too ready to let the machines take over things I once did for myself, but when I think of the ways that smart technology has already made life better—i hardly remember life before voice recognition on my smartphone—i am more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Google’s self-driving cars are a strong indication of what the future will hold. During years of testing, the company has reported just 16 collisions, only two causing injury. In both scenarios (and fully 12 of the 16 crashes), the Google car was rear-ended by a human driver. Whether the driver was texting or daydreaming seems beside the point. Humans are emotional and distractible—and we have an increasingly common tendency to be looking at our phones when we should be doing other things.
A world where connected bicycles and self-driving cars allow us to focus on the road or, better yet, take us out of the driver’s seat entirely seems like a safer, better one for all—not to mention one with fewer dented fenders. Would I completely trust an autonomous car today? No. But this type of change happens slowly; it will likely shift from adaptive cruise control to highway automation to fully autonomous driving over the course of years. We’re skeptical of these robot chauffeurs now, and for good reason, but soon, in five, 15 or 50 years, we’ll wonder how on earth people ever felt safe on streets full of cars driven by humans.
“Hybrid cars. You can see that in motor racing, they’re making great strides in Formula 1 and Le Mans, where they have the ultimate in performance hybrids. They’re shelling out up to 950 horsepower and have great performance but also fuel mileage.”
“I think the danger of complacency is always there. The cars
of today are so smooth, you can be going 80 or 90 miles an hour and before
you know it something happens. The speed magnifies the situation. But that’s our responsibility to be aware of that. You can’t fault progress if we fail as human beings. Let’s contribute to safety. All
of us can, every single day.”
“That’s the only thing that will not capture me whatsoever. I think those are for people who cannot drive. There’s
a race driver, Sam Schmidt, who was injured and is quadriplegic and Chevrolet
had him at Indianapolis in a Corvette, driving by computer at 80 miles an hour. How wonderful is that? For those of us who are lucky enough that we can drive, we’ll do it the manual way.”