The week of January 3, 2016

The unstoppable rise of the self-driving car

By Gillian Branstetter

The future of driving is here—and it has been for decades.

In October, Tesla unveiled “Autopilot,” a new driving mode that the electric car maker, headed by enigmatic billionaire Elon Musk, promises to relieve “drivers of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel.” These include parallel parking, dynamic cruise control, and even passing slower cars on the highway. While the features require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel, Musk says, “Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear.”

While “Autopilot” might be seem like a huge step in displacing human drivers, it’s not unexpected. The great thing about the feature is that it highlights the advantages of Tesla’s update management system, by which the company can add features, improve gas economy, and even fix mechanical issues through the same technology your smartphone uses to install a new iOS. But given the history and trajectory of the automobile market, the introduction of Autopilot shouldn’t be a surprise: Drivers have been taking a back seat to the technology that drives them for far longer than we’ve been talking about it.

When Google first began road-testing driverless cars in 2012, it felt like the coming of a future promised to us by films like Total Recall and Minority Report, in which cars don’t even need you. In Minority Report, driverless vehicles can even maneuver on vertical streets, as if propelled on a giant, gravity-defying conveyor belt. The road to fully autonomous cars, however, started long before Google was ever a company. The history of the automobile is the slow removal of responsibility from the human driver for both safety and convenience. While we might fear cars driving themselves, we should be sure to note how much cars already do.

The earliest consumer automobiles have very little in common with the roving living rooms we use today. The Ford Model T, the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine to become popular among Americans, required a hefty amount of knowledge just to operate—featuring a handbook that would bring any driver’s ed student to tears. A manual from a 1926 Model T issued by the Ford company and reprinted online by the Model T Ford Club of America highlights the advances in car technology most of us never bother to appreciate. Each advance brought us one step closer to the driverless car.

The history of the automobile is the slow removal of responsibility from the human driver for both safety and convenience. While we might fear cars driving themselves, we should be sure to note how much cars already do.

“Before driving the car,” advised the Ford Motor Company to customers, “fill the radiator (by removing cap at top) with clean fresh water.” If you’re a typical car owner, you’ve probably never even thought about your cooling system—much less had to refill it before each drive. Also, be sure to use rainwater as tap water, “which may contain alkalis and other salts which tend to deposit sediment and clog the radiator.” If you lived in a cold climate, where such water might freeze, you’re expected to heat it up over your stove first before adding it to your radiator.

It wasn’t until after the military’s widespread adoption of ethylene glycol (better known as antifreeze) that cars could even be run in cold weather, let alone without the human support of adding hot water. Now that your car won’t overheat, how about starting it?

A century of engineering has rid the car of several absurd steps for the human to take in operating a vehicle. First, Model Ts typically involved a throttle and a spark lever behind the steering wheel—the former controlling the amount of gas and air that reaches the cylinders and the latter controlling the electric charge that ignites this mixture to create a cycle within the engine (hence “internal combustion,” if you’ve never thought about it this far).

The further you push the throttle, says the manual, “the faster the engine runs and the greater the power furnished.” The spark, on the other hand, “should be moved down notch by notch until the motor seems to reach its maximum speed.”

The coordination of these levers, the hand crank, the choke, and ignition is all a bit complicated. In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a character is introduced to the process thusly: “Spark up, Gas down. Switch to Bat [turn the ignition to battery]. Crank to compression [literally turn a hand crank in the front of the vehicle], thumb down. Easy over—choke out. Spin her. Spark down—gas up. Switch to mag.”

We’ve clearly come a long way to arrive at “get in, turn the key (or push a button), put it in gear.” The first car owners in the United States would marvel at the magic of simply turning a key and having this process completed for you by electronic fuel injectors (invented in 1957 and standard by the 1980s), ignition switches, fuel pumps, and dozens of other parts in your car you never have to think about until they break.

Keep in mind, we haven’t even started driving! Let’s start with the obvious: automatic transmission. Changing gears in a manual car hasn’t changed so much since the old days, but anyone who has tried to learn how to drive a stick shift after years of handling automatics can tell you about the complexities of handling a clutch and the gear shift. The automatically shifting gearbox, first introduced in the 1940s, allows for almost effortless driving by comparison.

The 1958 Chevy Imperial had not just an automatic transmission but—as pamphlets and advertisements proudly hailed—a feature known as “Auto-Pilot.” The combination of the two meant the era of modern driving had arrived, when very little know-how of the mechanics of a car is necessary to manage one and very limited awareness is necessary to operate one. Slowly but surely, the cars began to take responsibility away from the driver and trust in new technologies.

If you lived in a cold climate, where such water might freeze, you’re expected to heat it up over your stove first before adding it to your radiator.

Even in this new era of automotive technology, there is a wide spectrum of features that one might call “driverless” yet don’t represent full machine autonomy. As the Verge’s Chris Zeigler notes, “convenience features on a wide variety of modern vehicles combine to closely resemble what you might consider to be ‘a self-driving car.’” Dynamic cruise control (which changes speeds with the flow of traffic) and automatic braking (which brings the car to a stop to avoid an accident) are already available in cars made by Subaru, Toyota, and other manufacturers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has even ensured that carmakers will be adopting such features as standard in the coming years, in much the same way they did for fuel injectors, anti-lock brakes, and other safety components that ensure the driver’s safety by removing them from the equation.

Tesla’s release of Autopilot is exciting, not because it tells us anything we didn’t already know ,but what we should have seen coming all along; it’s another wave in a torrent of industry change that will impact the future of driving—and humans’ increasingly limited role in it. The process to eliminate further responsibility from the driver might seem frightening, but we should take comfort that, just as we’ve gotten used to changing definitions of what driving entails, we can probably accept our cars parking, passing, and cruising themselves.


A version of this story was originally published by the Daily Dot on Oct. 15, 2015. 

Photo via Marc van der Chijs/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)