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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
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
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
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
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