Questioning the Viability of Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving cars are the wrong solution to the future of personal mobility

My buddy Mike is driving a 2015 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG, the perfect ride as we attend an advance screening of “Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman” at Hollywood’s famous El Capitan Theatre. We’re on our way home to the northwestern suburbs of L.A., traversing the San Fernando Valley late on a busy night.

Though he is a driving enthusiast, Mike is a big proponent of autonomous driving technology. This is only partly perplexing to me. Driving in Los Angeles sucks. Mike races on weekends, and gets plenty of track time on automakers’ dimes. I get that he’d rather not drive 65 mph down the Ventura Freeway at 11 p.m. if the car can do it all by itself.

I’m in the front passenger’s seat, and Mike is explaining some of the big, bad Benz’s safety features, one of which is Distronic Plus with Steering Assist. He says the Steering Assist function is designed to keep the car in the middle of the lane, even in slight curves.

“Show me how it works,” I say. The 101 freeway has narrow lanes, and the S63 AMG is tracking right down the middle of one. A slight left curve is coming up, and Mike reaches for the steering wheel. “Wait a minute,” I tell him. “Let’s see what happens.”

After a very slight delay, the Mercedes bends left around the curve, but not before utterly freaking out the motorist driving the Honda Pilot in the lane immediately to our right. The technology worked. But the person next to us detected our car’s delay, assumed we were about to cross the dotted white line, and braked in an effort to give us some room.

Now, I realize that autonomous driving aids and, ultimately, systems that drive the car without driver participation are a work in progress. Still, testing self-driving vehicle technology in places like California, Nevada, and Florida is easy (all three allow testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads). I want to see what automakers are doing in Michigan (which also allows this type of testing). In the winter. During a blizzard.

I grew up in Michigan. I’ve driven westbound on I-94, in the dark, snow falling fast and hard enough to obliterate the road and require frequent stops to clear the headlights and thwack! the wipers on the windshield to de-ice them. What’s your self-driving car going to do under these conditions, when its cameras and sensors are caked with slush or covered with road salt?

At a recent Motor Press Guild driving event in the hills of Malibu, California, I spoke at length with BMW PR representative Dave Buchko about autonomous vehicles. Weather is a factor that can impact a self-driving car’s ability to self-drive. And when the technology is working during fair weather conditions, what happens if a dog runs into the road, or there is an obstacle covering part of a lane and the driver attempts to steer around only to be overridden by the software? I’ve experienced that last scenario with steering assistance systems, and momentary resistance at speed can mean the difference between hitting something and avoiding it.

Drivers are also going to be required to remain attentive and ready to take over should the technology fail for any reason, just as pilots are when an aircraft is set to auto-pilot. Then there are legal implications, such as the requirement for a driver to accept a “Terms of Service” type of agreement (and we all read those before accepting, don’t we?). Buchko also mused about “drivers” of driverless vehicles who might be drowsy, distracted, or even drunk, and whether the automaker, the insurance company, or the driver is ultimately responsible if neither the technology nor the driver have performed as required to avoid an unfortunate situation.

One thing we did not talk about is the impact of poorly maintained roads and infrastructure on an autonomous vehicle’s ability to get from Point A to Point B. I just returned from a vacation to New England, and as gorgeous as upstate Vermont is, in many places the pavement markings have faded to black. The photo below is an example, but doesn’t depict the worst examples we encountered on our trip.

Barely visible center lane markings on Vermont Interstate freeway

Frankly, I don’t trust autonomous driving technology. Yet. One reason is that my experiences to date are mostly negative. A few weeks ago, a 2015 Hyundai Genesis Sedan kept emitting false lane departure warning systems during a test drive. Two years ago, a 2014 Subaru Forester’s EyeSight technology completely shut off when driving directly into waning summer sunlight that blinded the system’s camera. One time, a GM product equipped with numerous safety alert systems thought I was about to plow into another vehicle on a curved portion of road, the other motorist braking and turning right into Trader Joe’s from the right lane while I was about to pass in the left lane.

Given the amount of money and effort that is getting dumped into self-driving cars, I question the ultimate motivation of the companies planning to supply such components. (Not really. It’s all about $$$.) They don’t want to make driving safer. They want to make a big, fat pile of cash.

Is that cynical? Sure is.

My position is this: Driving is a privilege, not a right. The United States ought to make it harder to get, and to keep, a driver’s license. Licensed vehicles ought to meet minimum maintenance standards for safety, especially related to lighting, tires, steering and suspension components, and visibility. Busted for drunk driving? Goodbye, license. Caused a crash because you were Snapchatting? No license for you! (#SeinfeldReference) Elderly and can’t see or hear so well? Grab a senior citizen shuttle.

Making drivers better, like Mercedes-Benz and other organizations are trying to do through teen driving schools, ought to be a massive priority for our nation. But that’s not profitable, is it?

Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy instructor working with teen driver to improve her skills

Additionally, it is critical to make our vehicles safer. Gratefully, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is on the job while the NHTSA appears to be, umm, asleep at the wheel. Maybe they’re busy Snapchatting on the job.

Furthermore, our elected representatives need to make it a priority to better maintain our highways. Self-driving cars are not going to work so well if they cannot identify lane markings, or if they suffer tire blowouts and damaged suspensions due to potholes that a human driver would simply steer around. Of course, that won’t happen until some company with plenty to gain from smooth, clear, properly marked roadways makes huge campaign donations to a bunch of politicians (and then, only maybe).

The real reason that autonomous vehicles simply will not become a reality anytime soon, though, is that a society that refuses to relinquish its right to purchase and own assault rifles sure as hell ain’t giving up the keys to the F-150.

Let me know what you think about autonomous vehicles. Have you experienced driver assistance technology first-hand? What has been your experience in terms of the ratio of useful alerts vs. false alarms? And why would you want your car to drive itself to your destination? Why not?

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