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The 2014 Chicago Auto Show: Baby Steps Towards a Driverless (But Not Carless) Future

Young urbanites are turning against cars. But as long it’s only driving them that they hate, the industry has plans to survive.

Chicago Auto Show, February 7, 2014   Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

The cloud hanging over the Chicago Auto Show this year isn’t peak oil, it’s peak driver. And the disruptive technology on the horizon isn’t the quiet hum of the electric vehicle, it’s the Great Google and its self-driving car. An industry that’s often slow to adapt to new technology is asking itself the question: what’s a car without it’s driver?

Americans, especially young Americans, are moving towards cities, towards density, and driving less. Bikes and mass transit are something I write about frequently, but it’s not because I hate cars or driving. I still have fond memories of driving through the California desert in a friend’s manual BMW, and lumbering around Virginia in my misnamed ‘72 Impala, which handled more like a mastodon. I just hate driving here. Back home, the Blue Ridge Parkway and curvy rural routes have their appeal, but there’s no way to sell the dream of the open road at rush hour on the Stevenson, not when there’s the relative dignity and speed of the Metra, where the ability to work or read trumps staring balefully at personal-injury-attorney billboards.

If it’s not cars, but driving, that millenials are abandoning, the industry has a clear future, or as clear as it ever gets.

But it’s still an immense challenge—not just the technology, but getting drivers to adopt and adapt to it. Driving instincts are deeply embedded, and that gives car makers a double challenge: to transform cars so that drivers (how quaint a term) let their hands off the wheel, and to convince them that the technology will take over.

The big buzzwords at the show are “infotainment” (like I said, the car industry can be slow to adapt) and driver-assistance technology. The former is anything from Pandora music-streaming integration to the Tesla Model S’s seventeen-inch, Web-enabled touchscreen, which is as big as the screen on my monstrous desktop-replacement laptop. New Audi models have a built-in WiFi hotspot.

The latter includes things like adaptive cruise-control to keep you from accidentally tailgaiting, lane-keeping systems, self-parking cars that identify whether a given space is big enough, and rear-traffic cross alerts. My favorite is Cadillac’s Safety Alert Seat, the brainchild of a GM employee with a Ph.D. in cognitive process from Detroit’s Wayne State University:

The Ray’s Rumble motors — some provided by a company that makes massage chairs — buzz whenever the car is drifting out of its lane, either on the left side of the seat or the right. The driver will straighten the car but never know about Ray, that he studied pager motors inside old seats to try to figure out where the vibration worked best. That the fifty-one-year-old was inspired by how the hearing-impaired utilize tactile modality.

The rumble strip is coming from inside the car.

This might seem like a contradiction in terms, a massive rollout of technology that makes cars more aware alongside technology that makes drivers less aware. But there’s another process at work: slowly transferring control away from the driver, as the car lulls the consumer into acceptance. Rather than throwing Americans behind an eerily self-turning wheel, it whispers: Hey, you look tired of this stop-and-go traffic. Let me take over. You settle down and read BuzzFeed.

“That kind of stuff is sort of our first step on the road to semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles. We’re really getting a taste of all those technologies that need to merge to give you a self-driving car,” says Bill Visnic, senior analyst at Edmunds. “There was a survey just out last week that indicated that a lot of people weren’t up for that right now. I guess a lot of people, in general, indicated a negative outlook on that sort of thing. I think it’s going to be like a lot of innovations, where there’s going to be an acceptance curve. It’s going to take time.”

A lot, indeed: 82 percent, with 41 percent worried about safety. But as Burkard Bilger has pointed out, “autonomous” technologies have been introduced into cars for decades without drivers really considering them as such: power steering, automatic transmissions, antilock brakes, and cruise control all take responsibilities from the driver. In retrospect, the autonomous car has been built around us for decades, piece by piece.

As self-driving cars attract the urban-dwelling young professional, they’re also expected to squeeze the last little bits of infrastructure capacity out of the cities they’re moving to. In theory, a car that can sense the movement of other cars will respond more smoothly; a highway full of cars responding smoothly to each other will avoid the “small perturbations,” or “jamitons,” that can cause traffic jams even in the absence of a collision.

“I’m sure that many of you have cars—I do—with adaptive cruise control,” Ford U.S. vice president Joe Hinrichs told the Economic Club of Chicago at the Auto Show. “The cruise control goes at the speed limit you set it. When it sees the vehicle in front of you it notices that, it slows down automatically, then when that speeds up, it takes off. That’s not automated steering, but it’s automated acceleration. We’re going to get more evolution of that technology. Ultimately, you’d like to get to a point—from a safety standpoint, an efficiency standpoint—where the vehicles are connected, talking to each other. They know what each other is doing.

“One of the reasons we have all this stop and start traffic, one of the reasons why we have less efficiency in our network, is that people have to give space, everyone slows down to see what’s happening, then you go back up. If we’re all following each other, the whole system can move in sync. If you know what that car in front of you is doing, and the one in front of that, your car can get really close to the next car. You can move in sync, you can get more vehicles in, get more efficient.”

Then, when it’s time for you to break off from the pack of semiautonomous vehicles, the car would know how to do that as well.

“I can see a day where you’re driving on the Eisenhower or the Stevenson or the Ryan,” Hinrich said, “and you need a parking spot downtown in Chicago, and the car communicates to the parking garage, finds the nearest garage to where you need to be, reserves a spot, and the navigation takes you there. 30 percent of gas usage in the city is trying to find a parking spot.”

(I can see a day, I hope, when your shocks can communicate potholes to Chicago’s 311 portal.)

More efficiency means more capacity in cities that are straining under the burden of traffic and struggling, under the economy and austerity, to create capacity. More capacity, the industry hopes, means more cars sold to a generation that’s becoming a difficult audience for them. It better work; the backup plan is chill hamster bros.

While I was packing to leave, I asked Google Maps how to get home. It told me to walk a mile on slick sidewalks in stiff loafers (still waiting on its directions to factor in shoes) through zero-degree weather to escape the vast mostly-nothingness of McCormick Place. Instead I opted to take the King Drive bus to the Chicago bus, an hour-and-a-half journey in zero-degree weather that would take 20 minutes by car—about as long as I waited for the 66, which showed up with a second bus in tow. It was a scene to warm an auto exceutive’s heart.

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