Driverless Cars Are a Matter of ‘When’ Not ‘If’

I’m in traffic a lot. On the Garden State Parkway. On the New Jersey Turnpike. On the way to the Parkway. On the way into New York via the Turnpike. There’s construction, there are accidents, there are tractor trailers, there are simply tons and tons of vehicles on the roads.

Fortunately, I’m able to work remotely several days out of the week, but when I do commute, rarely does a day go by when I don’t witness the aftermath of an accident. Most are rear-end collisions that range from fender benders to fully crunched hoods and trunks. Sometimes ambulances are dispatched. Sometimes coroners. One last week was horrific: a small car vs. a large truck on the Garden State Parkway South in Ocean County, where I live. The driver was ejected from the car. As northbound traffic crept past the scene, the white sheet placed over the body in the middle lane was the grimmest of reminders that travel can be dangerous—and deadly.

There are days when getting to work feels like a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wouldn’t be surprised if the car zig-zagging through lanes at 85 mph shot a flaming arrow into the car “creeping” along at 75 mph.

I’m sure this feeling extends to commuters beyond the great Garden State. California’s traffic is as epic as any. Bangkok’s mix of scooters, taxis and bicycles borders on the absurd.

Is there any hope for driving commuters? Technology may have some answers—but certainly not all of them.

Tech’s impact on automobiles is growing, in particular by adding safety features unheard of only a few years ago. There are now blips and warnings and lights that let a driver know he’s approaching a vehicle too quickly or something is now in the car’s path. Some brake on their own before potential impact.

Some cars parallel park themselves. And others drive themselves, thanks to the sharp minds at Google, Tesla and other innovative companies and research facilities.

Cars now communicate with drivers and are capable of performing the same driving responsibilities as people.  

Driverless cars have moved beyond concept and will be on the roads within a few years. The town of Beverly Hills announced plans to replace some of its public transportation system with driverless vehicles. The technology is there: now it’s a matter of seeing how the general public will act (and react) to the reality of it.

I’m in the middle of the road, so to speak, on the idea of a driverless car. On one hand, I enjoy driving—I have a few older BMWs from the ‘80s and early ‘90s that allow a connection to the road and to the art of driving that new vehicles simply lack. On the other hand, watching so many mishaps on the road is clear evidence that something needs to be done for the safety and peace of mind of commuters and all drivers. A commuter lane for driverless vehicles makes sense, and I’d like to see the technology brought to some of New Jersey’s main highways.

Driverless vehicles may not be for everyone, but if, in the not-too-distant future, some dope cuts you off as you’re propelled along by your driverless car, at least you’ll have two hands free to give him a double Bronx salute.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.

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