The Quiet Automobile Revolution

My friend owns a Tesla electric car. He offered to take me for a ride yesterday, and I graciously accepted. Little did I know that the drive would be an incredible insight into the rapidly changing automobile industry.

Although Tesla wouldn’t let my friend operate the self-driving features that have been downloaded on every one of Tesla’s vehicles, probably due to a lack of local laws allowing such vehicles, he could use the car’s autopilot feature. The autopilot feature kept the car in a single lane while adjusting speed and occasionally lane position to account for speed limits and other cars. However, it was limited to street speeds. Using his acumen at hacking, he activated that feature for highway speeds. The autopilot feature additionally required the driver to always keep their hands on the wheel. He disabled that as well.

As a result of those modifications, my friend was able to sit with his feet off the pedals and his hand off the steering wheel while the vehicle drove itself along one lane of I-5. The technology was so effective that he only needed to touch the steering wheel three times on I-5 between the Highway 34 interchange and Woodburn, a 50 mile drive. All the manual adjustments he was forced to make were the result of poor driving by others, and required only minor tweaks.

Additionally, as a Tesla, his car was electric. It was mostly (but not entirely) charged when it left Corvallis before driving to Blodgett in the Coast Range, back to the Willamette Valley, up I-5 from Highway 34 to Tigard, from Tigard back to Blodgett, and finally back to Corvallis, a 126 mile trip, significantly further than the typical American drives in a day. Despite the distance, there was no range anxiety. The vehicle only required a 20 minute recharge at a free rapid charging station in Woodburn. Oh, and the recharge was free.

The drive showed me that the future is here. Autonomous vehicle technology works and is only a few years away from being rolled out on a major scale. Electric vehicles have ranges that are more than enough for the average American’s daily travels, and are increasingly available to the American consumer. We’re no longer 5–10 years away from these realities.

It’s not just anecdotal stories. Data shows that the automotive market is rapidly transforming. We were not the only electric car on the road. In fact, we parked next to two other Tesla vehicles in a Tigard parking lot. The number of electric cars in the US doubled over the past two years, and is continuing to climb at a near exponential rate. Although the electric market share of new vehicles may be only .7% today, most research groups estimate it will reach over 5% by 2020. Thirteen states now allow autonomous vehicles to drive on their roads, including California and New York. Adaptive cruise control and self-parking is already standard on most new vehicles.

We’re in a period of rapid automobile technological change, and it’s occurring quietly with little media attention, yet it will fundamentally change our lives. How much faster will traffic move if vehicles smoothly travel without rapid lane changes or improper braking and passes? How many lives will be saved if vehicles are programmed to avoid crashes? What security risks will arise from internet connected cars that can drive themselves and be hacked? What will happen when the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US become obsolete and lose their jobs? What will the carbon emissions reductions be as vehicle fleets are converted to electric? There is enormous opportunity in this dramatic transformation, but we better be prepared for the consequences.

Environmental Economics and Policy alum of Oregon State University

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store