Ruwandi Perera delves deeper into the future of the self-driving automobile

Does the thought of traffic give you nightmares? Do you dread the snail-paced morning and evening commute between home and office? And do you wish you could have a driver to chauffer you around and take care of parking while you lord it over in the backseat?

No, I’m not talking about Uber; rather, about the advent of the self-driving car, which in simple terms is a (car) robot that requires no human interference.

The idea may sound preposterous and unimaginable but Uber is already testing autonomous cars in the US with ‘real passengers’ in them. And although there’s still a human driver behind the wheel to take over if need be, people are travelling from point A to B in self-driven cars.

Does that sound scary or tempting? To let go of the wheel, clutch, brakes and gears, and immerse yourself in social media on the mobile phone (without being copped, mind you!) sounds surreally alluring, right?

Since the first motorcar was invented by the German Karl Benz in 1885, car manufacturers have constantly rolled out one impressive set of wheels after another. Be it the Megacar launched by Swedish high-performance sports-car manufacturer Koenigsegg Automotive or the Rolls-Royce Ghost Elegance painted with 1,000 crushed diamonds, the motorcar has always dazzled us.

Today, we have cars that run purely on electricity with no carbon emissions. And we now have cars with a full set of movie-theatre-entertainment options – but only to be enjoyed by passengers. Today’s cars integrate smartphones into their systems so that you can enjoy all your phone’s functionalities without even touching the device. And there are even cars that monitor your heart rate and pressure to ensure that the traffic doesn’t excite you too much!

Autonomous cars will produce mixed reactions from people. For instance, die-hard driving fans who enjoy the feel of all that horsepower will probably reject the idea of being a ‘car potato.’ Others whose one goal is to commute from one point to another will embrace the innovation.

Think about it. Autonomous cars will have a greater impact on the motor market than ride-sharing apps like Uber that have transformed the transport sector. People who own autonomous cars will feel as though they’re employing a driver – except that in this case, it’s an invisible driver who doesn’t need space or a salary.

On the other hand, the idea of self-driven cars will lead to people not wanting to own a motor vehicle – they can hail a human-less cab anytime of the day and not worry about insurance, maintenance, car care or safety (of the car and the human being driving it).

Known to come up with crazy-yet-cool inventions such as the Black Big Mac, Japan offers its citizens and tourists a new restaurant concept – UberEATS.

Thanks to a partnership between Volvo and Uber, you can now tour Tokyo while comfortably seated in the back of a Volvo XC90 and enjoy a scrumptious menu curated by Iron Chef Yukio Hattori that includes gourmet delights from some of the city’s best restaurants. And champagne is included!

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Now think of it without the gawking driver seated in the front… sheer bliss!

Being driven around in a self-driven car produces many benefits. While autonomous cars won’t completely ease traffic congestion, you can get some productive work done while being stuck on the road.

And you can eat, drink (yes, even alcohol!), read, browse, play games, pet your dog, have a meeting with an office colleague, go on a date, do your make-up and nails before reaching that party, complete your prep work before attending that seminar, and even change into shorts and running shoes if you’re heading over to the gym after work.

There is also a flipside to having our roads filled with autonomous cars (yes, they will be around in the next 10-15 years), which involves the impact on businesses that are fully dependent on the motor industry.

Collision repair businesses could go bankrupt because self-driving cars use location-based information and track the movements of other vehicles (and they may also be autonomous) so as not to collide with them. Such an accident-free system will also make people realise that they don’t need costly car insurance anymore.

With many autonomous cars being electric vehicles, we may also bid adieu to petrol stations and oil companies. Agencies that provide drivers and chauffeurs will also be affected since  robots are likely to be more efficient than their human counterparts.

Self-driving smart cars will do to the automobile industry what the internet did to books and libraries – not completely wipe it out but transform it into a new business model.

What’s more, riding in a self-driven car means an end to those dreaded speeding tickets. Now that’s something to smile about!