Self-Driving Cars: Have We Completely Lost Our Minds?

Advertisement, circa 1950, from America’s Electric Light and Power Companies. The caption read, in part, “no traffic jams…no collisions…no driver fatigue.”

Imagine for a moment you get to the airport, boarding pass in hand and you line up at the gate ready to board your flight. You do the March of the Penguins down the centre aisle, find your row, take your seat, buckle up and don’t pay attention to the safety announcements. As usual. But at the end of all of that, the flight attendant comes on the PA, and says something that jogs you out of your bus-with-wings catatonia.

We have decided for reasons of convenience and cost, we are going to leave the pilot and the co-pilot behind. Besides, they did seem a little distracted today. But don’t worry, this is a very modern aircraft equipped with the latest in automated flight systems so everything will probably be fine.


Does that sound ridiculous to you? Most likely. But if you think you’re going to get into a self-driving car, or even a car with autopilot where you take your hands off the wheel even briefly, you are doing precisely the same thing. You will have turned over your well-being — your life — to software and systems. But that’s OK. Everything will probably be fine.

OK, I realize you and I already do this all the time. Something as simple as getting on an elevator poses a significant peril to life if its software decides to act up at that particular moment. Traffic signals, should they all turn green simultaneously, would make the surveillance cam footage appointment television, for sure. Your August lock could be hacked to let in a cudgel-packing intruder or somebody could put their thumb over your Ring doorbell camera. Both would result in potentially dire outcomes. We depend on technology to do the right thing most all of the time. The result, perhaps surprisingly, is not chaos. In fact, we seem to be getting by remarkably well.

But letting go of a perfectly good steering wheel in a perfectly good car? It’s at times like these I think of Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall when he said: “Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.”

Ironically, the odds of surviving the preposterous plane-without-a-pilot scenario are actually quite a bit better than the car-without-a-driver. Look up. For the most part it’s a pretty empty sky. If we had a bunch of pilotless, people-carrying aircraft flying around, even without the aid of a system to keep them apart, statistically it is going to be a while before two of them try to occupy the same part of the sky at the same time. Particularly if we temporarily ignore the thrill of the near miss.

Coupled with the fact that what makes airplanes so darned expensive to buy and maintain is that they are, generally speaking, over-engineered and over-regulated to within an inch of their lives. Pilots are superbly trained and with few exceptions truly passionate and professional about what they do. To say nothing of having their own butt on the line every time they take us for a flight. I wouldn’t want it any other way and neither would you. Air travel — and it isn’t even close — is still the safest way of traveling between the proverbial points A and B. This is due in no small part to there being humans, lots of them, in the loop combined with triple redundant systems based on progressively more conservative engineering.

Now look down at that traffic in front of you — it’s a giant, steaming, 75-mile-per-hour stew of vehicles running the range from barely there, rusty, clapped-out pickup trucks through to 200-mile-per-hour, roadborne spaceships. They are driven by all manner of drivers with all manner of qualifications with wildly varying degrees of attentiveness and ranging in age from 15 to 95. Oh yes, and just in case you underestimate some drivers’ ability to pay-the-hell-attention, to wit the “Do Not Pokémon Go and Drive” sign. Seriously, you actually have to have a sign for that? Then look at the road itself. Seamless, midnight black asphalt with snow white, reflective striping is what we hope to see. The reality is just a little less than that. Well, actually a lot less. And with lots of traffic cones.

The mental image of the too-cute-for-its-own-good, upside-down-Tupperware-bowl Google self-driving car navigating this mess seems Looney Tunes comical to me. Add to that the blissfully unaware, Scrabble-playing occupants and you almost expect 16 circus clowns with big red shoes to get out of it when it pulls up to the curb. Thinking of that picture makes me laugh out loud every time.

If I may: there are going to be way too many variables in the mix for the foreseeable future for self-driving cars to be practical any time soon. Those rusty pickups are going to be around for a while. If bridges are falling down, for heaven’s sake, it’s safe to say city, state and federal governments are going to constantly struggle to keep up roads to a standard that will reliably support safe, comfortable driving let alone fully automated operations. Drivers? Sadly, some of them will still insist on looking for the ironically-named Pikachu instead of taking a peek at you.

So what exactly is my objection to the truly fascinating work being done on robot cars? Actually, I don’t have one. I think the technology is unbelievably cool. In fact, I love the whole damned enterprise, but in the same kind of the way I love the fact that we’re also thinking about going to Mars, colonizing the Moon, building the Hyperloop and scaling up drones so they can carry people in a nod to the Flash Gordon jet pack. There are simply some technologies which are worth pursuing for their own sake — for no better reason than to see if we can make them work.

My objection is the time and energy developing the self-driving car is predicated on it actually being a proximal, practical solution to a clear-and-present problem. Here it is: there are simply too many cars on the road driven by people who are not sufficiently engaged with the task at hand, which is to say driving the car. The engineers working on these vehicles really need to get out of the self-reflecting bubble of the tech development ecosystems in which they work. They really need to see for themselves what’s going on out here in the combat zone.

I do think, however, there is room for cars that are a lot smarter than the ones out there today for the most part. For example, for the guy who wants to watch a Harry Potter movie while cruising down the turnpike, I think the HAL 9000 might have a role to play — “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” — spoken in that chilling, half-whisper of course.

A car that parks itself also sounds pretty good. I don’t mean that lightweight parallel parking stuff that’s already here. That’s for dilettantes. I mean a car that drops me off at the front entrance of Nordstrom or Whole Foods and then takes itself off to, well, who cares where in the parking lot until such time that my smart watch detects the ‘finished shopping’ body language and transaction pattern. My car would then wake itself up and would arrive right back at the door just as I walk out. It’s a closed loop, highly controlled system where everybody — err, every car that is — is driving itself at two miles an hour. That seems about right.

Imagine a car that cannot be started if it unobtrusively detects that the driver is intoxicated or otherwise impaired to the point where they really ought not to be driving at all. How about a car that goes into an alarm state if it detects that the driver is no longer further able to do a proper job of driving while enroute? Kind of like an expanded version of that Mercedes system that knows when the driver is getting sleepy.

How about the brilliant example — because it’s so beautifully simple — of the already-available technology where the car gently applies the brakes if it senses something in our blind spot when reversing. The toddlers that have already been saved by this technology make the time, effort and cost worthwhile a hundred times over. It should be mandatory for all new cars right now.

Companies are free to focus on whatever problem or challenge they choose, I fully realize that. But it seems like self-driving cars demand an allocation of resources which deprive these more pedestrian concepts of oxygen. But as seemingly ordinary as they might be, they solve the concrete problems we truly have, right now. These technologies can be applied in a way where the benefits can be objectively measured in a couple of years or maybe even just a few months after they are introduced. For example, think about the blindingly obvious and trivial ‘technology' that annoys you until you put your seatbelt on, if we somehow don’t have the good sense to do that anyway. How many lives has that alone saved?

I’m well aware of my frailties and limitations as a driver, as with all drivers. I can think of just as many technological fixes to address these to allow me to devote much more of my attention to the very real, very immediate responsibility of being behind the wheel. This is to say nothing of the mythical midnight black asphalt with crisp white lines of the open road. I find that intoxicating — in a good way. It’s what makes me like to drive.

No, actually, it’s what makes me love to drive.

So, aren’t self-driving cars here already? They’re called Uber. Or just plain old Yellow Cabs. Or just letting the wife, husband or your kid drive. Think about it. If whatever it is you’re up to is sufficiently important or time-sensitive that it demands you pay attention to it rather than that petty annoyance of the road — and the crazed, distracted lunatics on it — then maybe it’s best to let someone else do the driving. Just not the car.

©2016 Terence C. Gannon

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