“Driverless cars? Sure, I see them on the road all the time,” said my friend Susan, who lives and works in Silicon Valley. “They’re testing them on the freeway now.”
“Are they safe?” I asked incredulously.
She looked at me strangely. “They’re safer than cars driven by humans.”
I could see her point. A robot car is never going to drive drunk, get distracted by spilling hot coffee in its lap, or turn around to yell at the kids just as a semi is pulling into its lane. My question was just one more proof – as if any were needed – that I’ve gotten a bit out of touch with my hometown. I was born in Palo Alto and grew up in Menlo Park and Atherton, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, a place where futuristic fantasies become old hat before I’ve even heard about them.
Nowadays, the signs on the area’s glossy new business centers make me feel as if I’m driving around on my laptop’s desktop: Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, HP, Oracle, Evernote, FlipChart. People talk casually about such cutting-edge technologies as Google Glass, the smart headset that’s built into the upper corner of a pair of eyeglasses, letting you check emails, take photos and videos, talk on the phone, and generally stay plugged in wherever you go with voice or fingertip commands. It’s still in the developmental stage, and so far, they haven’t programmed it talk to you in Scarlett Johansson’s voice, but I’m beginning to wonder if the movie Her was not so much sci-fi as a documentary of the next stage of our lives.
And I, for one, am ready to embrace the new technologies. Take the self-parking car, for example. Rich was out recently with our friend Phil, and when they found a tight but workable parallel parking space, Phil pressed a button, took his hands off the wheel and his feet off the gas pedal, and the car wriggled into the spot on its own. Now that’s what I call progress! Some cars can even be sent off on their own through a multi-story parking garage to seek out a space and park, returning to you later when you tap an icon on your iPhone. Eliminating the need for walking through dark, scary, half-deserted parking structures late at night? Brilliant.
Now that the initial shock has worn off, I’m warming to the driverless car idea in a big way. Rich and I don’t need a vehicle in walk-everywhere Seville, but when we’re in California, we have a zippy little red VW with a GPS system we call Vickie. We laugh at the way she butchers local street names, argue with her when she insists the freeway is faster at rush hour, and put up with some serious attitude when she’s recalculating our route. But she always gets us where we need to go. Would I like to turn all the driving and parking over to Vickie? You bet.
Driverless cars are now approved for road testing in California, Nevada, and Florida; Michigan allows them on the road but only with a human in the driver’s seat, and Texas is expected to legalize road tests soon. How safe are driverless cars, really? So far, two accidents involving driverless cars have been reported, one when a human had taken over the controls, another when the driverless car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. Let’s face it, with 90% of car accidents caused by human error, having Vickie or Scarlett behind the wheel may be, as the testing indicates, considerably safer, more fuel efficient, and of course, way cooler. It's almost impossible to imagine how these robot vehicles could change the lives of commuters, soccer moms, the disabled, drunks, kids too young to drive, couples on dates ... and anyone who's ever been stuck in traffic. Driverless cars are not available commercially yet, but Google is talking with car manufacturers anxious to buy or lease the technology and get them in the market and on the road as soon as possible.
Welcome to the future.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never obtain any free or discounted gear in return for promoting anything on this blog. I've never even seen a driverless car, tried on a pair of Google Glasses, or watched Phil's car park itself. But having spent the last five weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought I ought to bring you all up to date on some of the dazzling technology being tested here. If you've had a chance to try out any of these cool tech toys, please let me know about it in the comments below.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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