Will my grandchildren ever drive a car?

Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA

Growing up in a small town, getting to drive my own car on open roads made the world feel bigger. Earning my driver’s license was a powerful rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.


But buckling my 1- and 2.5-year-old grandsons into car seats recently got me thinking: Will they ever even drive a car themselves?


When automobiles first entered American roads, many pedestrians swore they were seeing horseless carriages. Now the future is driverless cars. And while U.S. drivers do remain nervous about trying autonomous vehicles, they don’t doubt that they’ll soon be a reality.


As Wired wrote early this year, in little more than five years, autonomous driving has gone from ‘“maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?’”


At this rate, autonomous vehicles might hit the market before my grandsons graduate from booster seats, let alone driving school.


The real challenge ahead of us then is to discover the true value that autonomous vehicles offer to society. My hope is we can collectively leverage this fascinating moment in the rise of artificial intelligence to positively impact the world my grandsons are growing up in … not just the one they’ll eventually drive in.


Last year an estimated 40,100 Americans died in traffic accidents. Motor vehicles now contribute to 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution. And commuters in more than 100 U.S. cities now spend more than 40 hours annually stuck in traffic on average.


Autonomous vehicles are a tool to solve these challengesBut to deploy them universally, infrastructure needs to evolve too.


Put differently: city leaders need to be as focused on welcoming autonomous vehicles as automakers, technology companies and startups are on developing them. A key piece of this, which we shared in a recent report, is the development of proactive policies and planning strategies to ensure that city streets, not just our cars, are connected and made with the latest technology.

As John Rossant, Founder and Chairman, NewCities, shared with me recently:

 “All cities want to be smart, but they aren't always on the leading edge of technology. The Smart Cities that we will recognize as leaders in 5 to 10 years are those which are already developing a digital ecosystem to integrate technologies that would otherwise be disconnected. Smart Cars–which communicate with each other, with smart devices, with smart infrastructure–need to be thought of as a thread that will weave other technological components in the Smart City together.”
John Rossant, Founder and Chariman, NewCities

Autonomous vehicles are essentially extremely powerful computers. But for software to fully replace human drivers, and do it safely, each computer needs to be sharing its data and communicating not only with the computer in the opposite lane – but with pedestrians, crosswalks, signals, and public transportation services.


Connected Vehicle communication, in particular, is foundational to autonomous vehicles. CV, as we call it – which Siemens is implementing in Tampa, Las Vegas and other cities – enables infrastructure such as intersections and streetlights to “communicate” with vehicles, buses, or even pedestrians. This helps drivers make better decisions that ultimately increase safety and reduce congestion. In Boston, for example, Siemens found that combining connected and autonomous technologies could decrease car travel times by up to a third.


So, will my grandsons ever learn how to drive?


Well, I hope they never have to. This would symbolize for me the advancement of American mobility and smart cities.


We just need to make sure that city leaders are in the driver’s seat – even as we prepare for no humans at the wheel.


As John added: “Ultimately, understanding the opportunity that Smart Cars represent will necessitate a conceptual shift on the part of City officials: in an urban world of smart grids and autonomous and electric vehicles, the family automobile is a piece of critical digital infrastructure.”