Autonomous Cars: Not Why You Think

As Bob Dylan once said, “The times they are a-changin’.” Part of the change on the vehicular landscape is autonomous, or self-driving, cars.

In a 2015 LinkedIn Pulse post, John C. Abell, an excellent writer with a history at Reuters and Wired, wrote a post entitled Self-Driving Cars: A Super Cool Idea Whose Time Will Never Come. While I agree with many points in his article, I disagree with the overall premise.

I believe self-driving cars will come to fruition and populate our roads by the millions.

700,000 Accident-Free Miles

Abell began his article by citing the milestone of 700,000 accident-free miles driven by Google’s autonomous Lexus and Toyota vehicles in the Mountain View, California area. Because LinkedIn’s offices are close to those of Google, Abell often sees Google’s robotically driven vehicles on the roads.

He wrote, “Some dreams come true, but I’m very skeptical about self-driving cars,” citing one of his reasons as the fact that fully autonomous vehicles aren’t that much safer than cars equipped with “driver assistance systems” such as “lane-drifting warnings, drowsiness detection, and adaptive cruise control.” While I need to do more research, I understand what he’s saying here. Although I think fully-automated vehicles are the safest option of all.

Abell then states “If driverless cars can reduce accidents, that would be a compelling argument. Consumers respond to safety ratings, especially if they have children.” Other than his overall prediction of the demise of self-driving cars, this is my main point of contention.

Drivers Don’t Care

I once Tweeted “The only true reality is consumer behavior.” I don’t think the average car buyer knows if the model they’re considering has received a five-star crash rating. And I don’t think most consumers care. A car buyer’s biggest safety concern? I’d bet my next book advance that it’s “Does it have airbags?” Even the planned Elio car, at only $7,000, would feature three airbags.

Because nearly all vehicles on the road today, in all price categories, feature airbags, even this has become an assumption and a moot point—and probably a question rarely asked of dealership salespeople.

I inquired with my friend Buzz Smith, a senior salesperson at a Dallas/Fort Worth Chevrolet dealership about his opinion. “My experience is probably five percent or less [ask about safety issues]. Most ask about horsepower, miles per gallon, warranty terms, and available colors,” he said, adding, “I think cars have gotten to a point that it is assumed they’re safe.”

Autonomous cars will offer amazing safety and significantly reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. There’s a reason Google’s robotic cars have achieved nearly a million accident-free miles. And they’re only test mules and prototypes, not market-ready production models!

Convenience is Key

That said, I simply don’t believe it will be safety that entices buyers to jump on the self-driving car bandwagon. As a society, we’re more hedonistic than safety-focused. This is similar to how, for most buyers, it’s not environmental concerns that are the chief motivator for purchasing an electric car like a Nissan LEAF or Tesla Model S (it’s saving money on gas and maintenance, or technolust and having the coolest car on the block).

Instead of safety concerns, it will be convenience that drives consumers to purchase autonomous cars.

We are a nation of convenience. There’s a reason even Pizza Hut and Walgreens have a drive-thru. Consumers with work commutes will desire an autonomous vehicle so they can recoup their commute time. They’ll use their “drive time” to help their career by studying, working, or even holding mobile meetings. Others will simply mess around playing full-on Angry Birds or commenting on their friends’ casserole recipes or deer hunting photos on Facebook.

Most of us don’t own sports cars and aren’t auto enthusiasts. Driving is a chore. I’m weird; I love it (even in crappy little econoboxes). I get plenty of opportunities to drive my wife’s car. Whenever we travel together, she would rather sit in the passenger seat. She’s more like the average middle class driver than me.

Legal Liability

Abell’s other point regarded legal liability. He wrote, “If a self-driving car is in an accident, who—what—is to blame? I wouldn’t want to be sued if I didn’t play an active role.” Agreed. Which reminded me of an article I had read a few months earlier.

Regarding liability, Google actually thinks it should be liable! According to The Atlantic in a May 19, 2014 article entitled Google’s Self-Driving Cars Have Never Gotten a Ticket, Ron Medford, safety director for Google’s self-driving car program (and former deputy admin for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) said, “What we’ve been saying to the folks in the DMV, even in public session, for unmanned vehicles, we think the ticket should go to the company. Because the decisions are not being made by the individual.”

Trippy. And likely not words that will put a smile on the faces of Google investors. Something tells me that the insurance industry needs to prepare for some serious disruption. Allstate, Nationwide, USAA: Are you paying attention?

But I don’t think it will be Google that popularizes autonomous cars (although it may hold an impressive patent portfolio or partner with major automakers). It will more likely be Tesla and Nissan. I think Google will be off developing contact lenses that tell me if I have testicular cancer….

[For an excellent high-definition video about Google’s driverless car tech, check out this video.]


All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

Time for Tesla

Back in 2015, Tesla Motors, in Fremont, California, unveiled its forthcoming all-battery electric Model 3 sedan. This five-passenger, sub-six second bleeding edge beauty is a real-life semi-autonomous family car from the future and will be priced at $35,000.

That’s $27,500 if the U.S. federal government maintains its $7,500 tax credit for qualifying alternative vehicles. While the upcoming Chevy Bolt will certainly be hefty competition for the Model 3, it will be an also-ran in terms of design, self-driving capabilities, and overall telemetry muscle.

tesla model 3

The venerable–and affordable–Tesla Model 3 (available in late 2017…maybe)

The following is a blog post I wrote under a pen name in 2014, when the Model 3 was all but a vapor fantasy.

Seeing new cars on the road, in addition to my typical obsession with consumer technology, has recently produced a constant mental Venn diagram—with new cars in the left circle and consumer tech in the right. And in the middle, overlapping section of the diagram?

Tesla Motors.

In a recent blog post, I kvetched about the lack of technical innovation in the auto industry. In reflection, I was referring only to the technical enhancements to personal transportation, such as Bluetooth, backup cameras, haptic feedback, adaptive cruise control, and head-up displays. What about the core drivetrain?

When you consider the pace of improvement and innovation in industries like consumer electronics, entertainment, and computers, it’s amazing that all of our cars (even if you drive a Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius) are simply leveraging an improved version of a 155-year-old technology: Internal combustion.

Clean Personal Transport

Regardless of whether you’re Republican or Democrat or your stance on climate change, no one can argue that auto exhaust is good for the planet. If given the choice, I’d vote to exclude it from my community. And so would Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors.

In fact, Musk’s vision is for one of his other successful companies, residential solar power provider SolarCity, to provide clean, sustainable energy for our homes and for Tesla to offer a viable, affordable solution to consuming that clean energy for transportation.

Have you been cheating on me? Musk juggles multiple CEO gigs.

Musk has faced roadblock after roadblock for his small offering of high-tech, sporty, and fully electric vehicles. Recently, car dealers and lawmakers across the country challenged him based on the fact that Tesla sells direct to consumers—not through dealerships. Old laws from a bygone era designed, ironically, to prevent monopolies are currently being leveraged across the country to prohibit Tesla from selling its cars. Michigan and West Virginia, among many others, have both banned Tesla from within their borders.

Lazy car dealerships acclimated to purchasing local monopolies for their particular brand are apparently so intimidated by Tesla and its attractive electric tech that they have been taking legal action and calling on their country club cronies to help protect them from open market economies. Unfortunately, it seems that most car dealership owners are more talented at screaming “Discounts, discounts, discounts!” on the local FM radio station than taking on a fair fight. Apparently their wallets are bigger than their balls.

Legacy Tech = Modern Cars

Combined with fuel costs hovering between $2.00 and $4.00 per gallon—and each of those gallons delivering an average of only 25 miles per gallon (according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)—the old way is feeling about as advanced as the paper and pencil that might have resided in the pocket of Henry Ford at the 1908 introduction of the Model T.

When you compare these items with a modern smartphone, like an internet-connected iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy, you get an idea of how far technology as a whole has evolved in American society. Henry Ford couldn’t have even imagined Angry Birds or binge watching House of Cards on Netflix.

The $75,000-142,000 Tesla Model S. Some consider it the best car ever.

If the Model T was the foundation of the fossil fuel-propelled auto industry, then it is surely one of Tesla’s models or the Nissan LEAF that is the genesis of a new age of significantly more advanced and earth-friendly vehicles. Because of Musk’s own passion for cars—specifically those of the high-performance variety—we’ve learned that electric cars don’t have to be boring. As practical and decidedly high-tech as the Toyota Prius is, “sexy,” “sleek,” and “fast” are terms that typically don’t enter one’s mind when thinking of this vehicle from our friends in Japan.

Let’s face it: If you have any lust for sportiness or curb appeal whatsoever, the hybrid Prius has always felt like a sacrifice, as if a middle-aged dot com hippy is, by driving down the road in one, symbolically stating, “I’m doing my part for the environment.”

Musk has personally bootstrapped Tesla during the course of its relatively short existence, investing more than $75 million of his personal wealth. He spent his last $40 million (from the sale of his brainchild PayPal to eBay) to save the company from bankruptcy in 2007.

Tesla now seems to be out of the woods in terms of its financial solvency. Investments from industry titans like Mercedes and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in addition to a successful 2010 IPO, have helped keep Tesla alive and growing.

Musk Knows Affordability is Key

Putting us at 2015. Tesla is two to three years away from selling a $35,000 everyman’s version of its vaunted $75,000-141,000 Model S that will be called the Model 3 (Musk has stated that the price is prior to federal and state tax incentives).

The Model S is the follow-on to Tesla’s first vehicle, the exotically sporty and expensive Roadster (hyped at its introduction by celeb customers like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tesla is also making progress on a battery plant outside Reno, dubbed the Gigafactory, a partnership between the company and Panasonic that will help make the Model 3 affordable for consumers and profitable for Tesla.

The gorgeous Model S passes the pump.

Musk has pointed out how market forces alone—especially given the heavy-handed lobbying and deep old-school pockets of the petroleum industry and car dealers—haven’t been enough to decrease the price of car batteries fast enough, enabling affordable electric vehicles. The Gigafactory, using leading-edge manufacturing processes, is purported by Musk to be the reason his company will be able to offer a fully electric car that competes on price with gas guzzlers from Detroit, Tokyo, and Seoul.

Musk is one of those once-in-a-generation entrepreneurs who truly gives you the goosebumps when you consider everything he’s accomplished—and when you comprehend what he might do in the next decade or two (he’s only 44, after all).

Unlike some of the more ego-driven and bombastic executives in Silicon Valley—like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Microsoft’s (former) Steve Ballmer, and T-Mobile’s John Legere—Musk is a relatively humble founder and CEO. Not to be confused with his confidence, which is hypnotically powerful. Some have accused him of having a cult-like following. Others simply appreciate his engineering-minded perspective and proclivity for efficiency, performance, and optimistic goals.

Given Musk’s accomplishments during the past few years, and his likely successes in the coming decades, it will be exciting to see what his companies achieve. Although The New York Times and Britain’s Top Gear TV show might have lost faith in his efforts, or even rigged some of their testing of his vehicles, the prospect of a Model 3 electric car for the masses, priced realistically and practically, may indeed change the game for automotive consumers.

So let’s cheer underdog Tesla Motors and its tenacious CEO Elon Musk for having the courage to challenge established players—be they car dealers or the big guys from Detroit. Porsche performance in a zero-emission car with leading edge technology, less expensive fuel than from fossils, and the quality and comfort of premium brands is an option that American consumers deserve.

And clearly want.

All text Copyright © 2003-2016 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a writer, instructional designer, and cannabis satirist who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, The KindSKUNK, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.