Sit back and relax; here comes the future

The photo provided by General Motors is simple but very telling.

The passenger compartment of this new GM sedan appears sleek and comfortable. But look closer. The added roominess comes, in part, from elimination of a few minor things — like, say, the steering wheel, the gear shift and the foot pedals.

Nobody’s quite ready for flying vehicles yet, but we are getting increasingly closer to George Jetson-like transportation.

Ohio is among the states in the forefront of testing and preparing Americans for autonomous — that is, driverless — vehicles after Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order last month to allow testing of these vehicles on Ohio roadways.

The order does not apply just to passenger vehicles. In fact, a semitrailer already has been successfully tested on state Route 33 north of Columbus onto the Ohio Turnpike. So, with large number of interstates and four-lane highways passing through the Mahoning Valley (often referred to as the halfway point between New York and Chicago), we should not be surprised to see driverless 18-wheelers rumbling through Trumbull and Mahoning counties in the very near future.

Sure, it may be hard to swallow, but deal with it. This is the future.

Just like with all types of automation, this comes with pros and cons.

Commercial delivery turnaround time and business expense will greatly decrease when trucks are cleared for takeoff without drivers. There will be no need for truck driver down time. Deliveries could be made from Warren to Chicago and back in a day. Economic development experts have described the use of autonomous vehicles as a “game changer” for the Ohio Turnpike and the Mahoning Valley.

While driverless trucking may spell bad news for the truck driving profession, it could mean growth of jobs at warehouses and distribution centers here. Guy Coviello, vice president of government affairs for the Regional Chamber and a member of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, recently pointed out that this region already is seeing an industry cluster for warehousing and distribution facilities. In Lordstown, for example, Anderson DuBose operates a massive restaurant distribution warehouse. Locally built Chevy Cruzes soon could be leaving the plant on car haulers without a driver, and retail giant TJX is considering Lordstown for its HomeGoods distribution center.

Of course there is the risk of computer error and collisions that come with these vehicles, much the same as any other risk of collision in vehicles operated by drivers like you and me. Last month in Utah, a Tesla on autopilot struck a parked firetruck after accelerating toward it. Two people were injured.

If two vehicles collide and one or both are driverless, who is at fault? Which insurance company is responsible for covering resulting damage or injury costs? Does determining the crash turn into major investigations for police officers needing to request search warrants in order to obtain records from the autonomous car’s databank?

And then there is the issue of increasing traffic and declining parking needs.

Just as Warren native Christopher Alan has been making progress on his plans to build an Auto Parkit manufacturing facility in Warren to build automated parking systems used mostly in urban settings, experts predict declining parking lot usage, particularly in major metropolitan areas. They say that’s partially due to the future of driverless cars.

Think about it. Driverless cars can drop you off at work and return home or to a low-cost, far-removed parking place to wait until your day is done, when it returns to pick you up. Or it could return home to pick up your spouse for errands or other stops.

Driverless cars carry GPS technology allowing them to navigate faster. They also require no down time for rest, which means less need for parking.

University of Texas at Austin professor of transportation engineering Kara Kockelman has said publicly that a university study determined one autonomous ride-sharing vehicle could replace up to a dozen regular cars. The robocars could drive all day and all night, stopping only for fuel and maintenance. The result is a 90 percent reduction in the need for parking, the study says.

Alan has said, however, he sees no cause for concern, and instead believes the new driverless car technology can work seamlessly with his automated parking system.

“We are a technology leader in parking,” he has told us previously. “We will have driverless cars working with automoatic parking facilities. The cars will be parked and can be charged, cleaned and serviced at our sites.”

All in all, there is much to consider — good and bad — with the approaching use of autonomous vehicles. But then, aren’t these the same kinds of issues Americans faced with the transition from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles?