Last week I was at NVIDIA’s big developer event where there was a closing keynote (recorded) by Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research on self-driving cars. Up until now the plan appeared to be to turn cars into some kind of horizontal rolling living room/elevator that would pick you up and drop you off without any driver input. In fact, some of the designs didn’t even have steering wheels. NVIIDA even showcased a self-driving race car that didn’t even have a place for a driver to ride (unless he or she wanted to put a saddle on the thing and ride it like a horse).
However, Pratt argued this didn’t have to be the outcome because there were two modes car companies, and particularly Toyota, were working on. One is “Chauffer”, which would work like I described, but the other and far more interesting mode, is Guardian Angel. In this mode, driving could actually be more fun than it is today, or it could be a lot like what happens when you put a small child in a car seat with a steering wheel – you could play like you’re driving but that’s all it would be.
Let’s talk about the fun self-driving car.
Guardian Angel Mode
This concept reminded me of the Cars ride at Disneyland. You have a steering wheel and a gas pedal, which you can use within limits, but it still sort of feels like you are driving the car. Guardian Angel Mode is much more subtle, but basically you have a drive by wire system for all car functions. And the computer is between you and absolute control over the car.
This means that if you are approaching a corner too fast, the car will automatically slow so you are within the car’s performance envelope. If you try to change lanes and there is a car or truck in your blind spot, the car will alarm and then keep you from making the unsafe lane change. If a child runs into the street in front of the car, not only will the car likely see the child coming from a greater distance than you can using a combination of infrared and Lidar but will also automatically brake and/or swerve around the child without needing your input.
Speed limits will likely become more of an absolute because the car will attempt to conform to them regardless of what you want to do. Now, I expect, you’ll be able to override this but I also expect that the car will record and maybe even report this so you are more likely to get a ticket in the mail or be found at fault should you have an accident as a result of this change.
This would be particularly useful for under-age or otherwise immature drivers because the system could be set to absolutely conform to the laws. If the car senses the driver is operating under the influence it could pull over disabling the car and signaling police, or take over all driving and return the car home. Imagine you’re kids being driven home and you receiving an alert that they may have been drinking. Far better than if they’d actually had an accident.
So with Guardian Angel mode you’d still be able to drive, you’d just be prevented from doing something stupid or unsafe and might be reported for the attempt. The question is whether that would provide enough fun to justify driving at all. I imagine it will depend on just how aggressive this system is. If it is just slightly more invasive than today’s accident avoidance, anti-lock, and various cornering assistance technologies it could be OK. If it is so controlling it literally feels like you are in a child’s seat with a fake steering wheel then, I think, folks will likely decide that Guardian Angel mode sucks.
It is good to know that the folks at Toyota realize it is important to preserve the driving experience – at least that means the car of the future will be both fun and far safer. I expect it will turn out that making the cars a lot safer will be easy, keeping cars fun at the same time may be a bridge too far. We’ll see because I have no problem with a friendly angel that wants to keep me safe while driving with me, I have issues with anything that wants to take me for a ride without my permission.