The Stealthy Rise of the Autonomous Car

Now this is a car.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lawrence Ulrich makes a great point in the course of his Infiniti Q50 review about the rise of autonomous cars in a world where technological capabilities are surpassing legal and social norms:

But where the G37 had typically been described as the next best thing to the BMW 3 Series, the Q50 seems not only to have switched from a well-regarded name, but also from a driver-first approach. And a driver-second description could be taken literally: Even as Nissan pledges to bring a fully autonomous car to showrooms by 2020, I found myself driving the Infiniti on surprisingly long highway stretches without touching the accelerator, brake pedal or steering wheel.

Girded with digital-, camera- and radar-based co-pilots, the Q50 charts a course toward the self-driving cars of tomorrow.

Progress is progress, but I hope policymakers don’t get too distracted by this kind of interim technology. If you think of autonomous vehicles as being primarily about increasing driver safety and comfort, then you’re going to reach the conclusion that they’re not necessarily that big of a deal. Cars are already very safe and comfortable, after all.

But a car that can actually drive around without a human driver is a total game changer. You would need wildly less parking in a world like that and could also tolerate a much longer commute, enabling both much more density and much more sprawl. You’d also largely eliminate the range problems associated with electric vehicles, since you could simply order up an electric car for your short trips (i.e., most trips) and use a gasoline-fueled one when necessary. A future 10 or 20 or 30 years off when that kind of technology is practical is something policymakers need to keep in mind when they think about transportation and energy infrastructure, and focusing too much on “driver assist” technology is going to blind you to the real promise.