By Allen Penticoff
The future is here. Self-driving, or “autonomous” cars are operating on our roads and from all indications we will see them on our streets and highways much sooner than we can possibly imagine.
First, I’d like to coin a new term. Autonomous Automobile, or AA for the acronym, should be the standard of what we call these machines, as the automotive press seems to keep stumbling along with what to call them. For this and future reports I will use “AA” liberally as otherwise the long descriptions slow down the reading. For my purposes, and hopefully adopted by others, AA will cover the full range of automation appearing in new vehicles, from simple self-parking to full on no driver needed at all. If the vehicle is capable of making decisions and maneuvering itself – it is AA.
That out of the way, AA has come about with government assistance over a couple decade gestation period. It was not long ago that experimental AA sported huge sensors, radar and cameras all over them, and on rooftops. The technology has now been miniaturized to the point of being largely invisible to the casual observer.
Enter into the fray, global automotive giant, Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) with their new concept car – the Portal. Debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show rather than a traditional car show, the Portal is all about electronics, as though getting somewhere in it is not it’s main feature. Designed by Millennials for Millennials, it is a pure electric vehicle with 250 miles of range. With fast charging, it can download 150 miles of range in 20 minutes. It has an “internal network” that makes all things electronic work. There are docking ports for electronics at each of the six seats. There is LED lighting that can change color – to light up the interior, to light the doorways, to warn pedestrians, and anything else you’d like to program them to do. These are being termed “communicative light displays” by the industry.
There are two sliding doors on each side that open opposite one another – making for easy entry in the tightest of spaces. The six seats pivot and fold flat. As it is expected that the Portal will soon become a full AA, operating without driver supervision, so both front seats were designed to turn around to face backward making – encouraging social interaction. Meanwhile the airplane-like steering yolk retracts into the dashboard. Of course there are screens to display navigation and select music and all the usual things. Using voice and facial recognition “printing,” the Portal will adjust its settings to accommodate the choices of the individual operator/user and no doubt it will connect with your smartphone. This seems overkill at first, until you realize that the Portal, as most new AA, are intended to be used for ride-sharing. Many people will be using a single vehicle and to keep things moving along, quick changes in these settings will be needed.
The Portal will be your temporary mobile office, living room, people hauler, cargo hauler and silent means of transportation. You probably won’t buy one and according to surveys, you don’t really want to. The Portal will drop you off at your destination and then go about moving someone else around. This opens up a lot of changes in our infrastructure and society, a topic that I recently absorbed during a panel discussion in Madison, Wisconsin, a city about to be one of ten test sites for AA technology.
There is too much to go into on what the future holds with AA for this week’s column, so I’ll save it for next or start a series. This is not people dreaming. Our largest corporations are racing to implement it. It will change our lives and positively affect the environment too.