OPINION: Are humans ready for autonomous cars?

OPINION: Are humans ready for autonomous cars?

Those of us who used to read magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, half a century ago, have long been aware that some fine day we’d have cars that could drive themselves: Mother and Father would swivel their seats around to face the rear, you see, and we’d all play Scrabble or Monopoly under the clear plastic bubble-top of our Robo-Buick, as it whisked us over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house.

That day has now arrived, or nearly so. Experimental autonomous cars, trucks and buses are already operating in several states, the brainchildren of Silicon Valley and Detroit, with companies including Google and Uber already in the fight to control the automotive future, along with Tesla, Cadillac, Volvo, Audi, Nissan, Ford, Toyota, and others.

The financial stakes are about as high as they could get, which must explain all the hype that’s pushing the public to accept the sexy but unproven technologies involved, but already we’re hearing of problems.

On Nov. 8 in Las Vegas, an autonomous shuttle bus was involved in a minor traffic accident on its first day of operation. Last year in Florida, a Tesla owner was killed when his car slammed into the rear of an 18-wheeler at 74 mph.

But the bus had stopped; the other vehicle hit it, not the other way around. Could a human operator have done better? We don’t know.

And the Tesla owner had counted on the car’s “Autopilot” setting to do far more than it was designed to do, and at too high a speed. Will the technology get better? Yes. Will the human owners get smarter? No.

These gizmos are not perfect — not yet, anyway — but they will no doubt learn faster than their human counterparts.

The machines will approach perfection, someday; the humans never will — which is one of the big selling points of robotic cars: No more road rage, no more drunken driving, no more asleep-at-the-wheel drivers.

The most interesting phase of the switch-over to autonomous cars (if it happens, which now seems inevitable) will arrive when there are substantial numbers of both automated and human-controlled vehicles sharing the roads.

Will they be able to get along? Will Luddites throw a wrench into the computers? We have enough terrorists and other mass murderers to shoot people down in theaters, night clubs, schools and rock concerts, so it’s a sure bet that we also have enough misfits who will hack into the control systems of automated cars, buses and big rigs, simply to cause havoc.

And how many people will voluntarily give up one of the most important tools we’ve been using, for more than a century now, to exercise our unalienable rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness: the steering wheel? Or will “they” (meaning The Gummint) have to pry the steering wheels out of our hands? The struggle over car control will be like the fight over gun control, only worse.

After all, only about 40 percent of U.S. households have one or more guns on hand, while more than 90 percent have one or more cars.

So fasten your seatbelts.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.


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