Probably three decades or more ago, I stood on the shoulder of the road near Beaver Point Hall while trying to thumb a ride into Ganges.
A newish-looking vehicle pulled over and I clambered into the passenger seat. Just as I was swinging the door shut, a rather mechanical sounding voice asked me to please fasten my seat belt. I looked quizzically over at the driver and he explained to me that the voice was not his but a talking safety feature of the vehicle. Instead of using warning lights and buzzers, this car actually communicated with speech.
I remember thinking to myself at the time that the introduction of this new technology is tantamount to prying open Pandora’s box in order to check out what kind of goodies lie inside. Owning a car that talks to you is certain to introduce a variety of interesting experiences. At the top of the list is the programmed “back-seat driver” voice that criticizes your driving skills. Having your vehicle tell you to slow down, shoulder check, and keep your hands at 10 o’clock and two o’clock will eventually lead you to the brink of insanity.
Being nagged by your car with questions such as “When was the last time you checked my oil?” or “Are you too cheap to pump a little premium into my tank, for a change?” is guaranteed to put you over the edge. And of course, nowadays the final straw would be when your car threatens you with something like “Put that cell phone down or I’m calling 911!”
Talking car technology did not come all at once. One of the earliest methods by which vehicles were programmed to communicate with humankind was the car alarm. That worked out well, didn’t it? Especially on the ferry! Whenever an alarm goes off, you can bet that everyone within earshot is silently cursing the car’s owner. A thief could smash the window, hotwire the ignition and drive away to the applause of all the bystanders who are just relieved that the piercing noise is finally eliminated. These car alarms have the same ultra-annoying effect on us as undersocialized two year olds in shopping carts at the local supermarket wailing away at the top of their lungs because their accompanying parent won’t let them sample the Pop-Tarts the parent has no intention of buying. Although most of us turn a silent ear to the child’s screams, we realize that if we were to act on our impulses, we would undoubtedly have to face consequences involving serious fines and possible prison time.
Fast forward to the future, which is actually the present, and we find ourselves at the precipice of the age of the self-driving car. Auto manufacturers are easing us into this new technology gently. There are already vehicles on the market able to park themselves without human intervention. The self-parking app allows you to take your hands off the steering wheel and let your “ride” do the maneuvering for you. You can opt for one of three options: parallel, angle, or the Alberta Tourist parking function. The last option will leave you three feet from the curb while taking up two parking spots.
It’s inevitable that these self-driving cars will begin to take on some of the characteristics of the drivers they have pushed to the curb. Here on Salt Spring, can you imagine two of these self-drivers stopped in the middle of the road, obliviously blocking traffic both ways, while communicating to each other about how their days have gone since being let out of the driveway.
Similarly, these driverless automobiles will waste huge amounts of time circling around island parking lots in search of that lone unoccupied stall and then each one will get locked in a horn-blaring standoff with another self-driver convinced that it saw the open spot first. They will flash their brights, send out vulgar threats through their turn signals and generally try to intimidate each other in a serious game of self-driving chicken.
It would be a mistake to assume that driverless cars would necessarily be competitive with and hostile towards each other. There’s no reason why a Honda Accord could not establish a meaningful relationship with a Kia Sorento Hybrid. If their profiles are compatible and sparks fly, they might just be able to date in an empty after-hours romantic lot on the island, or at least find a good spot to double park.
Driverless cars can also offer us a few perks. We could send them out to do a few chores for us. Why not get your Toyota to drive over to the local liquor store to pick up a case of Kokanee lager for you? Mind you, it might have to provide proper age I.D. and convince the clerk that car years are like dog years and get multiplied by seven. On the other hand, you have to be careful that your car doesn’t get sucked into an impulse buy of an unplanned litre of oil at the drive-through checkout lane.
You also have to consider how these vehicles will fare when it comes to ferry travel. How these self-driving cars are supposed to load themselves onto the ferries is anybody’s guess. Will they all want to be sent down the centre lanes and stubbornly refuse to be directed to the outside lanes? Mind you, with ferry staff shortages being what they are, it’s only a matter of time before we will be dealing with self-propelled ferries. Just imagine — there will be humanless sailings with no drivers, no crews and no captain.
And, as a side-note, with RVs getting bigger and bigger with push-out compartments and bump-outs increasing their sizes to the point where they become 10,000-square-foot mansions on wheels, it can’t be long before the ferries themselves start sporting push-out decks and bump-out lounges to accommodate the super-inflated loads. When expanded to its maximum capacity, the modest-sized Skeena Queen will more likely resemble a Liberian registered freighter.
Nobody asked me, but at the rate that technology is advancing, none of the scenarios described in this column are that far a reach. Like it or not, the self-driving vehicle is just around the bend and accelerating towards us. Keep your fingers wrapped around your steering wheel and hold on tight. Oh, one more thing: where exactly are 10 o’clock and two o’clock on a digital clock?