London - The first time your car drives itself, it’s terrifying. The second time, it’s thrilling. By the third time, it’s a little boring.
Self-driving cars are on their way to our roads. And they’re probably not going to arrive with a bang, but with a quiet little beeping.
In one important way, they already have arrived. Tesla is gradually rolling out its Autopilot features - meant not as a fully self-driving car, but as a way of helping people out while they’re driving themselves - and has recently announced that it will be moving towards fully autonomous vehicles over the coming years.
At the moment, that’s relatively modest. The features can only really be used on a freeway and aren’t ready yet to take directions or to navigate themselves.
But they’re getting ready, and will entirely change how we think about cars. The small variations act as ways of preparing us for the big ones. Cars like Tesla collect data on what they’re seeing and how their owners drive so that they can be fed into the algorithms that will take over in the future.
I became one of those data points when I took a drive in a Tesla that can at least partly drive itself.
Excitement grips you
In the Tesla - a Model S sporting the company’s recent but not newest autopilot technology - all that it takes to start car’s arrayed sensors and cameras is a little nudge of one of its stalks. The car blinks and beeps and steps into action, seizing control of the pedals and the steering wheel (but requiring you to keep your hands on it) and then ensuring that you drive safely along the motorway.
That’s when the excitement first grips you. The car is able to take in all of that information: the lines painted on the road, the cars and trucks that surround you and are shown on a little information display on the dashboard. The reality is that this car is almost certainly a better driver than you kicks in, and terrifying and exciting visions of a future run by robots pass before you.
But the thing about good drivers is that they tend to fade into the background. The car drives so comfortably, so without character that even as a human sitting in the drivers’ seat of a car you can forget that this isn’t anything like normal and would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago.
Which is, of course, exactly how the proponents of self-driving cars want it to be. The robots that will drive us around in the future won’t be flashy, careering around like the Colin McRae to your Nicky Grist. The experience will be classy and trustworthy enough to become entirely normal.
That’s likely to happen slowly, at first - just little additions and bits of help, like adaptive cruise control to make sure you don’t crash into the car in front and lane assist to keep you straying from your lines. And then it’ll speed up - quickly but imperceptibly, like a Tesla driving itself – until we’ll forget what it even means to drive.