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A World Of Self-Driving Cars Is Inevitable (And That's OK)

12/12/2016 08:34 EST | Updated 12/12/2016 08:34 EST
filmfoto via Getty Images
cars on Autobahn highway in Germany in high speed at night

I like to actively drive, not just aim down a highway.

This goes back. My Dad insisted I learn on a manual. It took a little more effort, but it paid off.

When I was 18, I was plucked out of a crew to drive Steve McQueen to and from sets for the Norman Jewison film, "The Thomas Crown Affair". The vehicle was a manual Jeep. I was the one (other than McQueen) who could drive it.

Later I was hired by Ford Motor Company, where I demonstrated and doled out manual-shift 5.0 L Mustangs and F-150 trucks to eager Canadian auto journalists.

Even now, I have a stick-shift MINI Cooper.

All to say that you might expect me to be horrified by the recent announcement that Ontario is putting three autonomous vehicles on the road to test -- and by the growing consensus that autonomous vehicles are coming sooner, rather than later, to a garage near you.

In truth, while my heart says gearbox, my head says computer chip.

I turn 68 next year. We keep our vehicles for a dozen years or more. My Dad gave up driving when he was 77 -- he lost the ability to turn his neck enough to check his mirrors. My neck is fine, but my reflexes are not what they were and diminishment is inevitable.

With this in mind, I recently purchased a 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-300 directly from the factory, precisely because it is one of the most sophisticated semi-autonomous production vehicles in the world. I took it on the road for a month, 3,500 km on some the most autonomous-ready highways on the planet, including the German Autobahn and Croatia's Autocesta.

The experience was nothing short of amazing.

Thanks to a meshing of a variety of cameras, sensors and other technological wizardry, the E-300 can essentially drive itself. It can process and adjust to speed limits. It maintains the space between your vehicle and the one in front, keeping a safe braking distance. It keeps you in the centre of your lane -- and actively resists wandering outside that lane until you signal you wish to do so.

It even responded -- when fog descended -- to an electronic sign that had lowered the speed limit due to temporary conditions.

I could go on: It also parks itself; adjusts to cross-winds; stops for pedestrians (or elk). Its only major nod to human control is that you have to touch the steering wheel every 60 seconds to prove you are still in the driver's seat.

Yes, it was a pricey Mercedes. And, yes, an even more pricey Tesla S has similar capabilities.

But don't kid yourself. The one lesson we have learned in the past thirty years is that technology moves down the automotive food chain at near-lightening speed. The reality is that the cost of the components that make autonomous driving possible will drop quickly.

Today it might be Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and Tesla -- but tomorrow it will surely be Ford, Hyundai and Kia.

This rapid adoption is going to be driven by two compelling factors.

The first I have alluded to: Baby-Boomers. There are already approximately six million Canadians over the age of 65 and those numbers will grow rapidly as the Boomer cohort (those born between 1946 and 1965) cross the traditional senior threshold.

If you're an automotive company, you want to keep these folks buying and driving vehicles for as long as possible, in part because they tend to buy more upscale, expensive models and in part because they are less susceptible to the "sharing" transport solutions being adopted by their Millennial grandchildren.

The second factor is a little less obvious: Insurance.

Contrary to popular belief, auto insurance is as much a pain to most insurance companies as it is to you. It is subject to fraud and is something of a brand-killer in terms of corporate reputation.

Thus the industry is already starting to embrace the concept of self-driving cars -- and why not?

Research suggests that 90% of all accidents involve driver error. According to a Bloomberg report, "as car makers automate more aspects of driving, accidents will likely plunge and car owners will need less coverage." In the same report, Donald Light, head of the research firm Celent, says that premiums could drop as much as "60 percent in 15 years."

One potential barrier to insurance industry support -- the assignment of liability if an autonomous car crashes - looks to be on the way to being solved, as Mercedes, Volvo and Google all say they will assume responsibility.

It seems certain that once the insurance industry gets on board the self-driving car bandwagon, governments and regulators are sure to be pressured to follow suit. Accidents don't just crumple cars; they also injure and kill citizens, creating huge societal costs and emotional trauma.

Much as the manual transmission has all but disappeared in the 21st Century, the idea of driving a car in the manner of a Steve McQueen may soon also be a thing of the past. Autonomous features will almost assuredly become mandatory -- and switching them off could become a too-expensive option.

(Robert Waite received no consideration from Mercedes Benz or any other automotive manufacturer.)

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