Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Autonomous Car

                Get in your car, close the door, put foot on brake, check mirrors, key in ignition, start engine, and then put in drive and go.  That is a typical start to any one person’s day.  Except that’s all about to change.   The autonomous vehicle is quickly becoming the idea from the future that is making it into the present.  A few years about Google received some publicity for having autonomous, self-driving cars in its fleet of plug in Priuses.  The idea is pretty simple.  Tell the GPS system where you want to go and the car will find the best route and take you there with no other input from the occupant. Audi has even more recently become the first automotive manufacturer to get state licensing to have self-driving cars on public roads in the state of Nevada.  An Audi TT even managed to drive itself up Pikes Peak.  Does this mean that driving ourselves around in our own vehicles is a thing of the past? And what about those of us that enjoy driving? Are we doomed to obey the wills of our machines?
                First, let’s answer why autonomous cars are being investigated as possible.   When the automobile was first conceived it was a small relatively slow moving machine.  Most the parts were from bicycles.  There was a chance in the event of an accident a driver could be thrown from the vehicle but it would more than likely just result in a few bumps and bruises.  The idea of a pedestrian being hit by one of these loud machines seems very unlikely.  Skip ahead over a century of development and modern cars are tanks.  Even the slowest new car sold in the United States today can easily accomplish speeds over 80mph and in fact there are few that don’t have the ability to hit 100 given the right amount of road.  Cars are also built today with large cages to protect the passengers from danger resulting in automobiles that weigh several tons.  As a result of the added weight, modern cars also need larger output from their drivetrains.  From an engineering standpoint we have hit a wall.  We cannot keep adding size to increase strength which then in turn makes cars more powerful because the more powerful heavier car becomes less safe in an accident or to pedestrians.  Car manufactures have realized this dilemma and they see that it’s the driver, not the machine, which is really the danger.  As long as a machine, any machine, is functioning properly it cannot make a mistake.  Humans make mistakes.  I have a great example from my local town news.  In my town recently an older woman drove her SUV all the way into a local chain restaurant’s front door.  She had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal.  In this case there was only one injury.  Her husband sitting in the passenger seat was slightly injured.   However, one shutters to think what would have happened if she had crashed one minute earlier and a group of customers had been waiting in the lobby to be seated for Sunday lunch.  The results could have been the death of one or more people.  The drivers of today are a distracted bunch.  Too concerned about what is happening on their cell phones, or how their makeup looks, or just letting their mind wander instead of paying attention to the task at hand.  By taking the controls of the vehicle away from drivers, manufacturers believe they can make roadways safer and more productive. 
                If all cars on the road were autonomous, traffic could be kept at a minimum.  Computers could decide the fastest way to move the number of cars on the fastest paths to avoid congestion.  Human drivers are more interested in cutting people off and getting there first.  Cars equipped with this technology could even make corrections for drivers.  If a driver is not paying attention to an obstacle and attempts to avoid it too late, the computer would take over and auto-correct for the driver to avoid either under-correcting or over-correcting.  Everyone remains safer. 
                Yet, even with these advantages the controlling part of my personality is not convinced in this view of the future.  I feel many automotive enthusiasts will agree with me that they like having control of their vehicle.  I rarely even use cruise control.  I don’t like the feeling of something else directing my car.  I don’t enjoy automatic transmissions because I want to say what gear to be in even if I am wrong.  Insurance companies also have reasons to question this line of equipment in vehicles.  Autonomous cars can only diminish not eliminate car crashes.  Where does the blame go when there is a crash? The driver who was not alert enough to avoid another vehicle, or the on board computer that did too little to correct the actions the driver took?  
                I do want to make one compromise to automotive companies and government law makers.  Allow some of the car buying public to have these autonomous cars.  Let them be free from themselves and their dangerous habits.  Take away their licenses altogether if you like.  Then introduce a higher level of education and restrictions for those of us who want to drive our own vehicles.  I would gladly become certified to be allowed to drive 90mph on the interstate instead of 70.  I would feel safer knowing that only those with proper training and properly maintained vehicles were allowed to drive on the same roads that I am.  Under current laws and regulations the cars and roads are supposed to be safe but dangerous drivers negate these rules. 
                If you are an automotive enthusiast (car nut) like I am I know you do not want to lose your privilege to drive.  Driving is a joy for you and to me.  I do not want to see autonomous cars become a threat to that enjoyment because of the actions of the few.  If we like this cause to that of the gun lover we can organize safety training and proper regulation that only safe people would be allowed behind the wheel.   A gun in the wrong hands is dangerous of course but so is a car.  Our right to own and operate a car is not protected and that scares me more than anything.  


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