The driverless car has become the symbol of the IoT – and it’s going to stay that way
The concept that best symbolises the Internet of Things isn’t the fitness tracker or the smart thermostat (although both of these important developments could make a good case), it’s the driverless car. As one of a few different autonomous vehicles the car by itself is not the solution to our global transport problems, but part of a network of new ideas. Mass transit concepts such as high speed rail, guided buses, modernised trams, these are all valuable parts of this new transport ecosystem – and potentially autonomous too.
We’ve referenced Henry Ford’s work in the early 20th century before, but in all honesty his impact and influence were probably felt more in the manufacturing industry as a whole, thanks to the popularisation of the assembly line, than just in automotive. To trace the evolution of the car you need to go back almost another 150 years to the work of Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor. His steam-powered automobile was the first of its kind to be capable of human transportation and a handful of years after that, his Gallic compatriot Francois Isaac de Rivaz invented a vehicle with an internal combustion engine that was, in a stroke of renewable energy prescience, hydrogen powered. But like many era-defining inventions, their protagonists were by turns thought of as both visionaries and outliers. And their work, as game changing as it was, took decades to catch on if at all. So it is with today’s driverless car.
Yesterday, cars were extensions of the self, offering the owner and not the vehicle the autonomy; the ability to transport themselves anywhere they want, whenever they want. Your car was part of who you were. Removing the person from the car is seen by some as a removal of agency and personality, another example of loss of control of destiny. So the driverless car has become one of the totems of the IoT, even if the reasons for it doing so weren’t from positive origins. But also, what was once emblematic of a progressive society with a growing economy, is now known to be environmentally dangerous, cumbersome, expensive, and a drain on personal time and resources.
The Internet of Things is the sea change that automotive wants, and while stars of the scene like Elon Musk keep the concept in the news with flashy ideas about colonising Mars and the like, it’s going to be a combination of untenable traffic levels, necessary environmental prioritisation and the hard work of an industry that earns the widespread public acceptance it deserves. The press may have jumped on driverless and autopilot car crashes, when the question that should be asked is: in the time it took for one autonomous vehicle to crash, how many accidents per 1000 cars have happened through human error? It will get to a point where the evidence in favour is too overwhelming and driverless cars will move amongst us, cementing the car’s iconic status as emblem of all that is progressive about the Internet of Things.