Driverless cars? Have they considered all the angles? – Newsday

Posted: Sunday, September 20, 2015

Michael Dobie
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

I’ve never been skittish about embracing our high-tech future.

I do have some curmudgeonly grumbles. I moan occasionally that I can now be reached by anyone anytime anywhere when I just want to be left alone. I worry about some applications — like how 3-D printers that can build medical models and manufacturing parts also can make guns.

But generally my attitude has been: Bring it on. I’ve always been ready for a Jetsons world.

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But one futuristic advance is giving me pause: the inevitability of driverless cars.

Experts say this dawn is 10 years away. Heck, allow for glitches and troubleshooting and make it 20. The point is, it’s coming down the pike. Fast.

If you doubt it, consider:

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California just gave Honda permission to test its autonomous car on state roads. Nine other companies already got the OK, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Tesla. Google says its autonomous cars, which have nearly 2 million miles under their drive belts, have been in 14 collisions since testing began in 2009 — all caused by humans. Of course. It has promised a public version of the car by 2020.

Ten automakers — all heavyweights, with more than half of new vehicle sales in 2014 — recently said they would install automatic braking systems as standard equipment on all new cars.

German automaker Daimler is testing a self-driving 18-wheeler in Nevada.

Mcity, a simulated town on the University of Michigan campus, held its grand opening in July as a facility to test autonomous cars under all sorts of driving conditions.

Look, automation is a huge factor in our lives. And we already are being ferried about by driverless vehicles. Paris, Rome and other cities have driverless trains. (Driverless taxis would be a bigger improvement.) Many airports have driverless people movers.

But those are single-track systems. Not exactly the Southern State Parkway on Saturday night, or the Long Island Expressway pretty much anytime.

And we all know what the driver in the next lane is like. Oh my. I’m thinking driverless cars aren’t going to work unless everybody has one.

But they offer clear benefits. No texting or drunken drivers, no one eating or doing makeup, no road rage (I hope). Cars could drive closer to one another, reducing traffic. Free hands and shorter drive times would boost productivity. And they’d give more freedom to many elderly, whose diminished reflexes and waning eyesight wouldn’t force children to take the keys.

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But I’m assuming they’re going to be programmed, like Spock, to be utterly logical. So will they exceed the speed limit in an emergency, like getting someone to a hospital? If there’s a fallen branch or disabled car or a cow on a two-lane road, will they go into the other lane to get around it?

Will they react to a pothole?

We also lack laws and an ethical framework to deal with this. When a driverless car kills someone, who’s to blame? What about insurance? Is it for the car or the nondriving owner? Does a driverless car need to pass a driver’s test? The same one as humans?

I hate the prospect of losing yet more control of our lives, the very point of so much technology. We just don’t have to do as much as we used to. Most of us don’t hunt and gather anymore, and we have dishwashers and self-propelled vacuums and remote controls.

Then there’s our long, deep romance with the open road. It wouldn’t feel the same without our hands on the wheel.

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Come to think of it, I haven’t heard anything yet about driverless motorcycles. Is that the last refuge for easy riders?

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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