Observations The USA

Asleep at the Wheel

aleepRegardless of how we feel about it, technology is barreling towards us. The future promises more artificial intelligence with computers that can do everything but pick your nose. The latest invention is a car that accelerates, steers and brakes without human intervention. When I heard about this I nearly dropped my wine glass.

I wondered why anyone would need a car like that. Heck, half the fun of driving is making all those last-minute decisions. I enjoy using my senses and reflexes to motor around town and am of the minority who know how to drive a manual transmission. Downshifting is fun! I particularly like that horseshoe motion I make before taking a corner, a flourish of my wrist that pulls Christine, my 1995 Ford Escort into second from fourth.

And yet, there are compelling arguments for autonomous cars. Commuting is monotonous, cell phones are distracting and people make bad decisions. 94% of the annual 33,000 traffic fatalities in the US are due to human error. Drivers lose their tempers in traffic and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars may be the solution.

Folks who have driven autonomously view the traffic pattern on a screen and can see their car in relationship to the others on the road. While the other cars weave in and out of traffic and bobble around in their lanes, their car hugs the middle and doesn’t make erratic moves. “The biggest source of angst comes, not from any technology, but from the other people on the road whose non-computer-assisted imperfections are all the more visible when you are being chauffeured by a supercomputer.” -Joe Harpaz, Forbes. Trials show the human drivers at fault when an autonomous car has a fender bender.

To help me understand the allure of computer assist, I went on a virtual test drive with Alex:

Like Alex, I find the technology both unsettling and reassuring. Still, I have no desire to replace Christine with a self-driving car. I like being in the driver seat with full control over her behavior. It’ll be up to me, not my car whether to pause and let someone back out of the slant parking on our main street. It’ll be my eyes, not computerized sensors that determine whether to stop for the people hovering a few feet back from the cross walk zone.

And yet driverless cars may be inevitable. A lot of resources are going into their development with the hope that consumers can hop on board within the next five to fifteen years. By the time I turn 100, autonomous vehicles may be the primary mode of transportation. By then I might be tempted if I thought I could afford one.

Maybe its sour grapes, but I don’t think we need yet another buffer between us and our surroundings. I sense another shred of humanity will shrivel after computer assisted cars become commonplace. Everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just broken glass in your carpet.


Ten ways autonomous driving could redefine the automotive world

Google Self-Driving Car Project

Humans Are Slamming Into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw

Study: Self-driving cars have higher accident rate

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

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