A few recent headlines: Obama Proposes $4 Billion Budget For Self-Driving Cars; Google, Tesla And Apple Race For Electric, Autonomous Vehicle; and, A Fatality Forces Tesla to Confront Its Limits. Obviously the race is on to perfect a self-driving car and most major auto companies have committed as well as tech giants Google and Apple. But I have a real problem with this enterprise.
I’m sorry, I have to question even the notion of a self-driving car. Why in heaven’s name would we want that? Are software engineers too bored with the status quo? Tired of improving inventory, ordering and shipping systems for Amazon? Tired of the creative challenges of designing software for NASA interplanetary space shots? Tired of designing software to more quickly access monstrous mountains of digitized information for Google? Tired of improving our computers and smartphones? I would think that there would be enough challenges in the world of technology to keep the “self-driving” car forever at the bottom of the list.
And why would anyone want to turn over the act of driving to a self-driving car? Ever since I first learned how to drive my Dad’s tractor and pickup truck as a kid, I have loved to drive. I have enjoyed starting, accelerating, shifting, the sound of the engine, the fresh breezes from lowered windows, the ever-changing scenery, but have enjoyed the power of control above all – why would I want to give up control? Why would I want to give up all this pleasure and power, the duty of staying between the white lines, staying on the right side of the road, and watching out for idiots, to a computer?
What’s this – a “single lens” look at the road? I have two lenses to see the road – one in each eye – this gives me something called “depth perception”, essential for driving I would think. I don’t think I’ve read about a “self-driving” car’s camera having two lenses and two electronic sensors. With my two lenses and two retinas feeding visual information to my brain, I have depth perception – I can not only see the outlines, shapes and colors of objects but I can tell how far away from me they are, how far apart from each other they are and how quickly I am approaching them.
If I don’t like to drive and fancy that I need a self driving car, I should take the bus instead. Or a taxi. Or just have someone else drive and enjoy the scenery from the passenger seat. Technology has gone too far: It wants to take the joy of driving away from me.
However good, the hardware and the software of technology are not infallible – it’s possible they both might get something called a “glitch”. Once in awhile my computer has frozen. It hasn’t crashed yet but it might. What if the computer in my self-driving car freezes or crashes. I don’t want to be in the clutches and at the mercy of a computer when this happens. So I’m just going to sit in my “self-driving” car reading a book while my car runs off the road into a ditch or crosses the center line or median and heads straight for another car? No thanks, I don’t think so, I’ll do the driving myself.
Even when functioning as designed will the camera and guidance systems on these vehicles see well enough to avoid moving objects like pedestrians, cyclists or stray pets? And will they be able to detect common road hazards like foreign objects, potholes or the barriers for road repairs? Will they be “smart” enough to see a policeman directing traffic and accurately decipher his motions? Oh, and what about traffic lights and the meaning of green, yellow and red? And will they be able to “read” road signs and warnings?
Also, what happens during winter on snowy or icy roads? Is the computer system in this car going to sense what to do in such situations? I can feel the drive wheels slipping and can take measures to address the problem. I can feel the loss of control when I brake in snow or on ice, and can let up on the brake to regain control or can tap the brakes to slow or stop safely. I can also handle a skid with my steering wheel. Is the computer going to do all this? I don’t see how.
And what happens when cold (or heat), snow or ice affect the computer system itself, when the lens with the eye on the road gets fogged or iced up? Will the computer know that it can’t see the road properly and let me know?
Of course there are some unpleasant features of driving. Heavy traffic and traffic jams drive me nuts. Stupid drivers – inconsiderate drivers who don’t signal to let you know what they intend to do, oblivious drivers who blindly turn out in front of you, people who drive too slow or too fast, people who are on on their cell phone while driving, or worse, texting, all drive me crazy. But when things like this get unbearable, I will stop driving and take a bus or a taxi. I will not buy a “self-driving car”!
I have always been a little queasy about flying. Yes, it’s quick and it’s comfortable and yes, per passenger mile it’s much safer than driving. But…and this is a huge “but” – someone else is “driving” this huge machine through the air 30,000 feet above the earth with a huge crowd on board. If this person feels ill, suddenly loses consciousness, or if something goes wrong with the electronics or mechanics of the plane, causing a serious problem, it’s all out of my hands – I am helpless and powerless and totally at the mercy of these circumstances. When I am driving, of course I could feel ill or something could go wrong with the car, but I am still in control, not someone else, and could stop the car and address the problems.
The same principle applies to a “self-driving” car. Why would I want to have that uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness, of someone or something else being in control while in my car going to work or on vacation or driving across the country?
Also, how safe should we feel when encountering “self-driving” cars driving along with us or coming toward us on our highways and streets? Truly, even with all the idiots on the road, I think I would feel safer dealing with the idiots rather than dealing with cars driven by computers.
However, with the inexorable advance of technology, with the desire of manufacturers to create another product to sell and make profit from, and the eagerness of many people to own the latest gadget, I am sure that the march toward the “self-driving” car will continue. But count me out – I do not want to give up the pleasure and the power of driving my own vehicle and I definitely do not want to be the guy whose Tesla on “auto-pilot” hit a truck and killed him.