Just say no to the driverless car

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Are you ready for your driverless car?  I’m not.  I like to drive.  It is fun and satisfying. That is only if I have the right car like a BMW M3, Mazda Miata, Corvette or Porsche Boxster.  Give me some twisty roads, or even an interstate.  It is even fun to drive one of those big four wheel drive pickup trucks that sit high and can pull stumps with their diesel-hungry V8s while carrying a crew of six.  I hate to be lulled to death behind the wheel of a cushy Buick or Lexus that feel like driving a video game.  But I do know that many people, maybe even most, don’t like to drive.  They are ones who live in horrible traffic conditions or just want an economical transportation appliance.  I get that.  What I still don’t get is the automated or driverless car that is getting lots of recent attention.

The last few years, a number of organizations have intensified their efforts to make a fully automated car that would drive itself safely.  Mostly they have achieved that goal.  Google is the most visible example with their fully driverless Prius’.  These cars are loaded with forward, backward, and side-looking radars, proximity sensors, multiple video cameras, laser scanners, cruise control, collision avoidance hardware, automated braking,  GPS, Google maps, and what must be a water-cooled super computer in the trunk to make sense of all that data.  That computer then issues steering, breaking and other commands to maneuver to the car.  The car is programmed to have the intelligence to be safe and to get you to your destination without your participation.  You can then text, do email, read the paper or maybe even have a drink.  Hey, you are not driving, why not?  It is nice to have a car like this to get you home safely after an evening of partying, that is, if you can remember where you parked the car.

Anyway, Google has been testing the driverless car and has hundreds of thousands of miles of experience and development.  The vehicles are so safe that Nevada, California and Florida have passed laws allowing such cars to operate in their states.  Google’s massive lobbying effort in the states is paying off although some states like Arizona and Hawaii have said no.  I suspect there is some effort in Washington to get a Federal bill passed to permit or someday to even mandate the use of driverless cars.  Oh boy.  Hope they aren’t all Priuses.

The goal of the driverless car is to improve safety, increase gas mileage, and to reduce traffic congestion.  And for those who have to negotiate nasty traffic a couple times a day it relieves you of the stress and aggravation or boredom.  You can sit back listen to the radio or hey maybe even watch TV while you sip your latte.  The problem is that the laws to date still require a driver presence since not all situations are covered.  For example, the sensors are still not good enough to keep the car in its lane on rainy or snowy days as it cannot see the stripes.  Trees and complicated construction sites are also hard to recognize and negotiate.  And some unknown situations may arise that will require actual human intelligence to make a decision or maneuver.  But that’s not all.  Whose fault is it if an accident does occur?  Who is liable?  That is one thing the lawyers and insurance companies are still trying to figure out.

I think the basic goals of a driverless vehicle will only be achieved under ideal conditions.  One of these is the technique of “platooning” or establishing ad hoc convoys of trucks and cars each following closely to get the drafting effect of a race car to improve gas mileage 10-15%.  Maybe the whole driverless function is only for trucks and other commercial vehicles.  I am not sure I want to be in a convoy with a loaded 18-wheeler tailgating me 5 meters away at 70 mph.

Personally I am not ready for a driverless car.  I do appreciate the technology and engineering effort that has gone into this work.  Practically every conceivable electronic product and component, artificial intelligence and other software techniques is used to achieve this feat.  I support that.  Right now the electronics is too expensive for the marketplace but some say that within 5 years we will see some automated robotic vehicles for sale.   Some say ten to fifteen years.  GM, Ford, BMW and others are also working on such vehicles, just in case they catch on.  However, will the public really want one?  Will they be like hybrids that only account for a few percent of all cars sold?  Would you deliberately buy one?  Will people trust such a vehicle?  Would you?  I wouldn’t.

Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean that you should.  I think driverless cars fall into that category, at least for now.  Keep the research and development going and consider the ultimate end result as an option or a niche, like electrics. 

Besides, they say that you are what you drive.  Your car or truck is a reflection of your personality.  Your car gives you an image and identity.  I believe most people agree with that idea.  If so, what does owning a driverless car have to say about you? 

Check out some of the responses to this question on Engineering TV.

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Lou Frenzel writes articles and blogs on the wireless, communications and networking sectors for Electronic Design. Formerly, Lou was professor and department head at Austin Community College...
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