Toward An Autonomous Lifestyle

Taking a hands-free ride

“All right, take your hands off the wheel and pull your feet off the pedals,” the Mercedes-Benz salesperson said. His tone was confident, and his posture relaxed. I was excited to see this “self-driving” car in action. The Range Rover was good, the Tesla was better, but this Mercedes had “250 times more code than the primary flight software in NASA’s space shuttle.” How could it not be the best?

As a tech enthusiast with a background in computer programming, I enjoy understanding how the advancements in technology work from an engineering perspective, and in the past few years, I’ve noticed a marked shift in the types and forms of computerization used by automotive manufacturers. I remember my dad bringing me to the dealership in the mid-2000s to pick up his new car: the first model to have iPod connectivity. As the years went on, I witnessed the evolution of automotive technology, with additions of touch-screen navigation, Bluetooth cell phone connection, and eventually the full cell phone and cloud integration of Apple CarPlay. Although these features showed a deeper integration with technology, they only show half of the picture.

The other half is what you don’t see, where technology has changed how the car operates: engine performance, brake usage, and steering power. When control of these three elements is ceded to one central computer, the result is autonomous driving. Hints of this technology have existed for the past half-decade, with features like 3D surround views, backup beepers, and adaptive cruise control, but it has only become a reality as of late. My friend and I saw an advertisement for the technology in the Mercedes E Class sedan: a car that replaced the dashboard with a two-foot computer screen instead of dials and gauges and could park itself. I called the dealership and by the weekend, my friend and I were sitting in the car with the enthusiasm of spectators at a sports game.

I did as the salesperson instructed, and without my hands on the wheel or foot on the pedal, the car began to reposition itself. It started off slow with the steering wheel moving fluidly, but gradually it increased in speed and the wheel jolted from side to side, before lurching to a stop. Did someone pull the emergency brake? I remember thinking. With our adrenaline pumping, my friend and I jumped out of the car to see what we hit, only to find that there was nothing around us. My friend asked, “How could a car with so many lines of code not even pull into a parking space in an empty lot?”

The answer lies in a principle known as Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest solution is typically the correct one. In the case of this car, more lines of code do not translate into a more functional autonomous vehicle. Each additional line creates room for errors in the program and makes the system harder to maintain and expand. The simpler the code, often the better the result. As the Mercedes advertisement and demonstration shows, somewhere in the time between the vision of an autonomous lifestyle and the present, quality became conflated with quantity from an innovation perspective.

Innovation soared in the postwar era. Although the computer revolution was in its infancy, its impact was already felt. By 1956, General Motors had made a short film illustrating “push-button living,” where technological automations increased the quality of life by simplifying everyday tasks. Over a half-century later, our twenty-first-century world clearly embodies this mantra. Tap one button, and a taxi appears; tap another, and a meal shows up at your location. We no longer have to dream about these innovations, though not all of the autonomous lifestyle is perfected.

We’re at a point where we can reach out and touch the future, and sure it has a few bugs, but after all, tomorrow’s product in your hand today is still in beta. I can’t wait to experience it when it is complete. With every passing year, that fully autonomous lifestyle envisioned by 1950s GM inches a little closer to reality.

Chasan is a rising senior in Trinity College pursuing a B.S. in computer science and a B.S. in economics with a finance concentration.

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