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Bookshelf: Where robotic vehicles are taking us

Bookshelf: Where robotic vehicles are taking us

Two books, and one of them actually offer a vision of what awaits

Like you, I’ve been trying to figure out what the future holds for our beloved and manually shifted, petroleum-fueled and human-driven vehicles as we apparently rush headlong onto roads where cars are powered and driven by electricity, sensors, cameras and computers.

Will autonomous vehicles force our cars into a fate much like what our cars did to horses, taking them from daily transportation and making them a popular but expensive hobby, pretty much restricted to some racing tracks, to special arenas and to the occasional public display in holiday parades?

Book cover

For some guidance, I recently purchased and read two books that purport to offer some sort of vision where we might be headed. 

The first was Are We There Yet? The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless by Dan Albert.

Sadly, it turns out that in regard to our driverless future, Are We There Yet doesn’t even come close. A better title might have been Where We Were, because what we get is much more a history of the automobile rather than any sort of vision of its future.

There is a chapter, “Future Visions of Robot Cars,” in which Albert points out how expensive autonomous vehicles will be, “too expensive for individual sale” — for example, those sensor cans atop the prototypes you see from time to time cost $75,000 each. As that chapter ends, Albert belies the book’s title by admitting, “My goal is not to predict the future but make sense of the past and understand the present.”

Too bad the publisher didn’t get that message and mistitled the book.

Book cover

About the time I was finishing my disappointing read of Are We There Yet? the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville announced a family fun day that included a presentation and book signing by Jason Torchinsky of his Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving.

Torchinsky is a senior editor at Jalopnik, a producer of Jay Leno’s Garage, a stand-up comedian and artist. In few words or pages, he does what Albert did not. Torchinsky’s brief historical section focuses on the development of robotic guidance technology from Da Vinci to DARPA, explains in understandable words how such stuff works and for most of the book looks to the future and what it might hold.

He argues that the “autonomous car” really isn’t a car but a transportation robot that will deliver people or products to specified destinations. As for their impact on society, he suggests we look at how the portable telephone has transformed not only in its own size and design but our entire lives and society.

He offers some visions of our future, whether we’re driving or allowing the robotic vehicle to do so. Some you’ll like, but some you will not. 

Reviewed

Are We There Yet? The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless

By Dan Albert

W.W. Norton, 2019

ISBN 9780393292749

Hardcover, 389 pages

$28

Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving

By Jason Torchinsky

Apollo 2019

ISBN 9781948062268

Hardtcover, 244 pages

$25

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4 Comments

  • Dan Albert
    July 30, 2019, 3:36 PM

    The automobile was invented many times in history, as was the driverless car. Taking an inventory of those inventions is of antiquarian interest. Understanding why, after having been invented many times in the past, the automobile suddenly became a hot ticket in the 1890s is of historical interest. By the same token, we should ask, "Why are we suddenly getting driverless cars now?" And, "Why are we getting the kind of driverless cars we are getting?" For example, the image in your headline is from an ad by "America’s Independent Electric Companies." They used the idea of a driverless car to argue against Eisenhower’s "atoms for peace" nuclear power program. The driverless cars now envisioned will not leave room for family backgammon….

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  • William Curtis
    July 30, 2019, 5:09 PM

    I would like to see available autos for sale .

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  • Ryan Corman
    July 30, 2019, 7:59 PM

    Oh HELL no. I’m glad I’m old and won’t suffer such soul sucking abominations; I don’t even use automatic transmissions in my own vehicles, and take great pride in the fact that I have never- ever- used my "smart" phone or any infotainment crap while behind the wheel. Radio & CD is enough, set & forget, thankyouverymuch- you’re supposed to be driving.
    Driving is a primary activity, where one has lives in hand, and electro-hoohah simply adds distractions and unnecessary complications. Tesla, anyone? Smashing into a semi at interstate speeds is sure gonna screw your bookclub presentation (it got "confused"). Oh, and let’s put me & the Tremec against any playa with a modern roboauto that didn’t understand the owner’s manual… fools ALWAYS choose the paddles & lose. Why buy a robot, then override it with your ego? Launch control deprives one from ever developing a critical skill that translates across all autos, and if you bet on it, well, what about glitches, or hacking, or your own ineptitude?
    Thank God Almighty I’ll be dead before this nonsense hits mainstream… Oh, and when glitches, manufacturing defects, hacking, age & deterioration of the architecture, weather, etc etc etc start killing motorists and non motorists, why, the legal bloodsuckers and insurance bloodsuckers and government drones are gonna party like it’s 1999. Welcome to 1984, and the chains of authorization.
    Y’all can have it.

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