The Road Trip, Reimagined
"The family road trip will definitely be different," John Moreno tells me, when I put the question to him a few days later. As a public affairs manager for AAA based in Northern California, he keeps tabs on the latest trends in cars and driving.
For starters, Moreno says, when the family of the future embarks on a vacation, they might not pile into the traditional SUV parked in the driveway. Instead, they may wait for a shared vehicle—most likely electric or hydrogen powered—to show up at the curb when summoned by a Siri-like digital personal assistant. The specific make and model that arrives could depend on the number of passengers, the distance they're traveling, and the expected road conditions.
If their goal is great scenery, they'll probably get it, no matter where they're actually going. Thanks to virtual reality windows, they could be hurtling down I-5 but looking out at the Champs-Élysées. "As much as anything," Moreno says, "cars will be vessels for customized experiences."
This is not how I thought of my parents' Plymouth wagon when I was a kid in the 1970s, riding in the way-back with my brother. A car was just something that conveyed us from Point A to Point B as we gazed at actual landscapes, playing word games and cataloguing out-of-state license plates.
My fond memories of those moments were partly how I sold this father-daughter day to Scarlett: She could set aside her iPad for a few hours of I Spy and enjoy a taste of childhood as her dad knew it while soaking up the splendor of the coast. Of course, a little bribery was also involved.
Our first stop, in Santa Cruz, is a promised visit to Marianne's Ice Cream, a local institution that doled out its first scoops in 1947. It offers customized experiences of its own—more than 80 flavors to choose from. I opt for rocky road, which I hope will not turn out to be a metaphor for our trip.
Were this 10 or 20 years from now, our car might drop us off at the ice cream parlor, park itself while we ate, then swing around to pick us up. It could also negotiate the stop-and-go traffic we encounter as we curl along the cliffs at the city's southern edge, past the popular surf spot Steamer Lane. The swell is up, and swarms of surfers are vying for waves. Congestion is an issue everywhere these days.
Many experts believe that self-driving cars will help make roads less crowded, especially in cities, where automated vehicles, combined with sharing services, will reduce the density of traffic while still shuttling us efficiently where we need to go.
There's hope for crowded highways, too. Picture a road trip in which your car joins a caravan of vehicles streaming smoothly down the freeway at the speed limit, just three or four feet between bumpers. Such driving scenarios would require each car to have an array of sensors—which never take their "eyes" off the road—coupled to an onboard computer making rigorous, split-second decisions.
Forecasters say that's another upside of self-driving automobiles: They could eliminate the human errors that account for the vast majority of vehicle collisions, which kill more than 35,000 people in the United States every year.
In the event of a fender bender or other snarl, those driverless cars would use their communications skills to alert one another to the problem and suggest alternate routes, without any screaming or angry gestures. Robots don't succumb to road rage unless you program them to.