Why your autonomous car won't have a steering wheel

The latest pictures from the inside of Google’s prototype of a self-driving car revealed that they don’t have a steering wheel. But why is that and what do the public make of it?

Matt McFarland reports in the Washington Post that his readers were split down the middle about whether it was a great idea or not. "The reactions were about as polarized as I’ve ever seen on a blog post I’ve written," he writes. "The first group of readers were amazed, and they wanted to know where they could buy one. Everyone else was terrified of the interior. A car that they could never steer? No thanks."

Image by Matt Waxman on Twitter

And why don’t the cars have a steering wheel anyway?

Because human drivers can’t be trusted to effectively take over in sticky situations, meaning that the makers of autonomous cars can’t responsibly include a steering wheel.

Stefan Heck, the founder of Nauto, a self-driving car start-up researched what happens when drivers resume control from autonomous vehicles. He found that they took up to 10 seconds just to attain the level of ability that a drunk driver possesses. To get back to being a fully competent driver took 60 seconds, he found.

A self-driving car cruising at 70 mph probably doesn’t have 10 seconds to wait for a human to take over, let alone 60 seconds.

"A huge fraction of the time, nothing bad will happen because the vehicles really are reliable, hundreds of kilometres at a time before something really terrible happens," Ed Olson, a University of Michigan professor research self-driving vehicle technology, said.

Image by Deepu Joseph on Twitter

"You can’t just be tootling along on the freeway and the car says – ‘Oh your turn!’ Meanwhile the person is like ‘What?’"

But, as Reid Hoffman points out in a LinkedIn Pulse post, "it’s not just steering wheels and rear-view mirrors that driverless cars render obsolete. You won’t need horns either. Or middle fingers."

Image by Deepu Joseph on Twitter

Of course, the introduction of autonomous vehicles also frees drivers up to do other tasks while travelling. "Motorists will be able to work, sleep, you name it," Hoffman writes. 

"Watching a game on TV will replace listening to the game on the radio. Enjoying a leisurely meal with a knife, fork, and a glass of wine will replace gobbling down a burger with one hand.

"Drinking and driving won’t be a crime – it will be an entrepreneurial opportunity. Texting and driving will still be frowned on – but only because people will be wondering why you aren’t Meerkatting and driving. When you use the word 'gridlock', your kids will have no idea what you mean. But they’ll be able to look it up on Google, even if they’re speeding down the highway at 100 MPH."

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