[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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SFWRITER.COM > Futurism > The Future of the Automobile

The Future of the Automobile

by Robert J. Sawyer

Written for the National Post, February, 2007

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

For the car of the future, the trick is finding the balance between Ralph Nader and the Chevrolet dream. Nader, of course, famously declared some cars unsafe at any speed; what he — and I — want are cars that are safe at any speed. But the Chevrolet dream — their 1950s slogan was "See the USA in your Chevrolet" — was that it was just you and the open road, and you were in control.

We're going to see more and more automation as time goes on. Making a car that goes more than 100 km/h isn't a huge engineering problem — but human drivers can't respond fast enough to make those speeds safe. Personally, I'm all in favor of letting the car drive itself (just as airplanes now mostly fly themselves). I'd much rather trust my life to the efforts of engineers and programmers than the angry, sleepy, distracted, incompetent, inebriated people who are behind a lot of wheels now.

It's often been said that anyone could have predicted the automobile, but only a science-fiction writer could have predicted the traffic jam. Well, here I am predicting the end of traffic jams: computer-controlled cars won't get in each other's way, and they won't slow down as their drivers gawk at accident — in part because there will be many fewer accidents, and in part because the passengers in the car will be able to get a decent look without the car going at a slower speed.

There really are a lot of pluses to the self-driving car: you can sleep, drink, read, watch TV, do work — whatever you want — while getting safely and efficiently to your destination. For my money, we can't make the transition soon enough. "Road rage" will be a thing of the past; there's no reason driving should be frustrating, or why vehicular accidents should be the leading cause of death of men under the age of 25.

Still, there will be a desire to get out on the open highway and just drive — people do enjoy that, and it won't entirely disappear. But in the future when we talk about hybrid cars we'll mean cars that can be both self-driven and controlled by a driver; the terms "manual" and "automatic" won't refer to transmissions but the totality of operating the vehicle. So, yeah, you can get out on the highway when the mood strikes you — but most of the other vehicles will still be driving themselves.

Power sources, of course, will continue to improve; we'll eventually give up internal-combustion motors all together. Hydrogen fuel cells and electric cars will be the order of the day.

And what about that most central of science-fictional notions, the flying car? Yes, that too, will eventually come; in my novel Rollback, to be released in April, I have the first flying cars being demonstrated at Expo '67 — 2067, that is, Canada's bicentennial. I think that's about the right timeframe. The engineering won't take that long, but dealing with the legal hurdles will. Imagine the lawsuit when George Jetson accidentally stalls out above a school playground and comes plummeting to the Earth, wiping out a bunch of third-graders. No, the flying car will have to be automated; it's too dangerous otherwise. But we will want them, because maneuvering in three dimensions eliminates a lot of congestion, and because part of the fun of driving is seeing the sights, and the sights always look good from up in the sky.

Keys will disappear completely; the car will know your biometrics, and open its doors only for you. As for car fashions, paints will be replaced with nanotech finishes that can change color at will — no reason to be stuck with a car that's last year's color. The car will also be self-cleaning, inside and out, and minor nicks and scratches will heal themselves; the car wash will be a thing of the past. Oh, and everyone will have an e-ink display on their bumper — no more tattered stickers, but rather a display that can be updated in real time with your current bon mot you wish to share with the rest of the world. I know what mine will say: "Quiet, please! Driver is napping."

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