The latest innovation in automobile technology is the driverless car. Google has a Lexus SUV roaming the nation's highways, racking up more than 500,000 miles since 2009, without benefit of a driver or any major mishaps.
Many observers say the Googlemobile is the wave of the future. Nissan's CEO Carlos Ghosn, for one, predicts driverless cars will be in showrooms by 2020. Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, said the time has come to look at cars as just another piece of a big high tech network.
Well now, I am a modern guy who embraces cutting edge technology, but I do believe this is one advance that will take us backward. It will prove to be a nightmare for auto makers, regulators and consumers. It is a solution in search of a problem, technology for the sake of technology. Some sober people need to step back a bit, take a hard look and address some rather obvious issues.
For example, I believe consumers would demand that any commercially sold driverless car come equipped with an emergency bypass so the "occupant" could assert control if he or she thought a driving situation was getting out of control. Like if some jerk coming the other way is texting and drifting over into your lane. I can see myself asserting control at least two or three times on a routine trip to the grocery store.
Also, I assume these driverless cars come with built-in location finders like the one in my current car -- the one that always gets mixed up with streets that have similar names and more than once has urged me to turn into oncoming traffic on a one way street. Who among us would trust our lives to these systems? Not me.
I believe we can assume also that the government would require driverless cars to observe the speed limits. There are streets in my neighborhood carefully marked 10 MPH. There is no such thing as 10 MPH. Try to imagine a typical American driver putt-putting along at 10 MPH when he is trying to get somewhere. Oh, the language that would come out of that car!
And what would people going somewhere in driverless cars do with their free time? Well, I suppose they could watch TV or chat on their cell phones or text their friends. Or have a few glasses of wine. Well why not? They are not driving after all. Put a cooler in the back seat and start the party. They can't nail you for driving under the influence if you're not driving.
Another problem will be the cost. Auto makers are already running into consumer resistance as they add one new gizmo after another. A Ford Fusion, according to Forbes, "has more than 145 actuators, 4,716 signals and 74 sensors" that have driven the cost of the car up 10 percent since 2008, to over $30,000, cheaper I am sure than the new driverless cars.
There will undoubtedly be many viable uses for smart vehicles in industry, commerce and the military but they will be hard sell for consumers -- including this one.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. May 2013