For many of us, it’s the thrill of driving that first stirred our passion for cars. It could have been one of many aspects of driving that first stimulated our senses: the encouraging burble of cylinders, the chirping of tires on a tight corner, the metallic clicks of gearshift, the whistle of a turbo’s blow-off valve, or for some seriously disturbed few like myself, the intoxicating smell of gasoline emanating from a rich-burning, carburetor-fed engine. How could anyone not fall in love with the idea of bending a massive machine to one’s will, hurtling at speeds man was never designed to travel?
Yet it’s the very fact that man was never designed to process information at such speeds that car accidents do happen. And in some cases, precious lives are lost as a result. To counter this, we’ve built in more and more systems to compensate for our slow reaction times and poor judgement. Yet the more sophisticated these systems become, one factor is clearly arising as the culprit — the human element.
Whether inebriated with a variety of substances, or with judgement clouded by sadness, anger, or so many other things to think about, we fail to focus on the task at hand: driving. And because we want faster, more efficient, and also safer cars, Science is slowly taking that pleasure away from us.
The autonomous driving future is far closer than many of us realize. Already we’re beginning to see aspects of it more and more cars being offered today; from some form of self-parking (Park Assist, Park Pilot), self-braking (Forward Emergency Braking, Full Auto Brake), or even self-steering (Lane Keeping Assist). These ‘convenience features’ are the baby steps required towards creating the fully autonomous car.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve been shown, and sometimes ridden inside some of these vehicles, parking in designated slots, stopping before barriers or people, and taking on high-speed sweepers all on their own. With the progress they’ve made in just a few short years, it’s safe to say that the arrival of the fully autonomous car is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’.
“What about us and our right to enjoy driving?” you might ask. The carmakers are well aware of the fact that driving is fun, and it’s the main reason that influences our decision to buy a car in the first place. That’s not about to disappear, yet its frequency will certainly diminish.
At the recent Tokyo Motor Show, we were given a first-hand look at just how the decision of when and how we get to drive might be taken from us.
To drive autonomously and safely, many of these future concept vehicles are now being packed to the brim with sensors to detect the road, what each wheel is doing, to check for obstacles on all sides, and even the internet or other vehicles for traffic information. Yet an even newer development is the inclusion of sensors pointed at the cabin and the passengers.
The clearest example is Toyota’s autonomous driving interface called ‘Mobility Teammate Concept’. Set to be integrated into many future models, this program not only drives the car, it also decides when and how we can drive, when we can’t and where to go when in such a situation.
It does so by using cameras, sensors and facial recognition technology to determine a driver’s state of mind. Sensors in the wheel detect if a driver is holding it to begin with and where on the wheel. Sensors on the pedal determine how hard you are pressing, how economically you’re driving, and how quickly you react. Cameras pointed at the driver use facial recognition technology to determine what state of mind we’re in. For now, it can only identify happy, sleepy and mad. Yet soon it will be able to tell if we’re distracted, sad, or perhaps even experiencing a stroke or seizure.
These systems combine to determine when it can or should take the wheel and continue to drive, or slow down and pull over. It even integrates with communication systems to call emergency services.
Perhaps the most distressing part are the updates yet to come. The system plans to integrate with our internet lives and learn more about its drivers through social media. Yes, you will have to add your accounts to your car too, allowing it to sync with your contacts, calendar, email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All of it will be stored on Toyota’s central server in Japan, just waiting for a hacker breach. Yes, it will read out your day’s itinerary like Alexa of Google Home, call friends for you, and play your tunes, but it will also know your deepest darkest secrets, like those Facebook posts marked “Only me.”
In the coming years, Toyota intends for the Mobility Teammate to act like an ever-watchful guardian. Though to be honest, the system behaves more like Baymax from Big Hero 6: sweet, adorable, and a little naïve, but can be annoying at the wrong time.
Driving mad? Sorry. You can’t drive today. You’ll be whisked away to Dairy Queen now because that’s the last place you posted something happy. It will tell your office you'll be late because you're going to get a Kitkat Oreo Blizzard. Sad? The car will call your closest friends and tell them. Don’t worry. The car will take over the driving. Like sports? Expect the car to say something like, “How about that Ateneo-La Salle UAAP game? Nailbiting fourth quarter huh?” Happy? Great! Now you can drive… to the joyful harmony of Sweet Soul Revue by Pizzicato Five, while your car glows a bright blue and pink. Pray you're driving alone lest your passengers find out your guilty pleasure.
With such features, the car of the future can truly be the extension of our personality we’ve always wanted it to be. Unfortunately, it will be linked to all our personalities, even those we don’t want to share.
By now, disjointed, improbable ideas in your head are now beginning to connect. What seemed only possible in movies is now a distinct reality. Could Toyota be Skynet? Perhaps. Maybe it will turn out like Jarvis. Only time will tell.
But for now, humans, enjoy the freedom of untethered, unmonitored driving. That chapter is coming to a close.