Driverless Cars:  How a Recent Car Rental Turned Me into a Believer

November 13, 2018 BY Charles Fallon

20180925 - smart car

I landed at LAX just shy of noon – probably the best time of the waking day to head north on the 405 and through the Tejon pass for a long flat drive up the central valley of California.

I forget what they call my status at National Car Rental – something flattering like Platinum Mega-Elite – which is really just a reminder that I spend too much time on the road. Still, it gives me the small luxury of picking whatever car is available. Sometimes, it’s a cornucopia of coupes and convertibles. Mostly, its an uninspiring mix of minivans and sedans. This time, the pickings were slim and I hopped into a Toyota Camry.

The car was unremarkable until the Central Valley. Then, as I hit open road, I flipped on cruise control and settled into three hours of podcasts. However, as I approached an ambling truck, the Camry did something startling: about 50 yards away from the truck, it began to quickly decelerate out of my control. I thought I was driving a lemon and would have to spend an hour waiting for a tow-truck from Bakersfield. I shut cruise control off, took control of the car and sped past the truck. I tried cruise control again and again, it decelerated rapidly when I came upon a truck just ahead.

Wait a second – this was no accident. This Camry was looking ahead at traffic and taking steps to avoid a collision without my intervention. Then I noticed another thing: if I crossed a line without signalling, the Camry beeped at me. Edge over the white line of the shoulder? Beep! Beep! Pass without signalling? Beep! Beep! I later tested on unmarked pavement in my client’s yard: no beep. The Camry saw the lines and reacted when I failed to acknowledge them.

Its one thing to read an article about driverless cars. It’s entirely another to experience some of the basic functions at work. This Toyota Camry was no self-driving automaton but it was pulling off enough nifty features for me to understand viscerally how advanced driverless technology really is. Advanced enough to turn a perennial sceptic like me towards cautious acceptance of its imminence.

And once driverless technology does well and truly lands, supply chains will never look the same. Maybe we have 20 years to get ready. But maybe we only have 10. Will you be ready or are you tomorrow’s K-Mart or Blockbuster?