by Steve Stajich
Those of us who have at some point needed to hire a pricey-per-hour professional “computer nerd” to come de-bug, unfreeze or otherwise fix our home computers may have more than just a few doubts about any shiny future for self-driving cars. Even those hoping to manufacture and sell self-driving vehicles have had their plans slowed by a tragic accident in which, as widely reported, the driver testing an “autopilot” system in a Tesla vehicle was killed when the system failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer truck from a brightly lit sky and the car’s system failed to hit the brakes.
Many is the time I have worried about my own fate and that of my age-afflicted dog Spooky, who walks with a slow gait due to doggie hip problems, after we entered an intersection we always cross close to our home during Spooky’s late night/early morning sojourns to relieve herself. At those off-prime hours a driver approaching the t-bone intersection of Pier into 4th Street might be coming home from a bar or a fatiguing shift at work. It never surprises me when a car bombing down 4th Street will simply continue on at speed right through that intersection and its all-way stop signs, as Spooky and I safely wait for the offending driver to pass.
Would those near-misses be reduced by a new reliance on self-driving car systems?
It’s certainly pleasant to think so. But the self-driving cars themselves are but one element in a technological ecosystem that allows “self-driving” to occur. And as the National Traffic Safety Administration continues to investigate the Tesla test accident, it becomes increasingly clear that self-driving cars may bring with them a potentially lethal mix of unintended consequences.
But that’s also a possibly worrisome description of how technological progress occurs. In the old movie “Spirit of St. Louis” actor Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh uses a paper map, a compass, and a look out the window of his monoplane of tomorrow to determine how well he’s navigating his historic flight from Long Island to Paris. Alone in the plane, Lucky Lindy observes that “there’s nothing wrong with dead reckoning… except maybe the name.”
Move forward a few decades and commercial aviation is born. And along with it, the unintended consequence of airline crashes. “Auto pilot” became a household term as systems were created to allow pilots on airliners to take a break or even catch a few winks. Today, we rely on the technology of black box recorders to help us piece together what happened in an airline crash.
Despite what it sometimes brings, we’ve become so trusting of technology that we often welcome with open arms any new tech that might make our lives easier before any real consideration of potential unforeseen consequences. No one was outspoken about the mouse-click availability of pornography before it became a fact of life, and many cite online porn as the ‘industry’ that improved search engines and the performance of online videos. One of the things you read about self-driving cars is that they would free-up drivers to enjoy their commute coffee and their phones without being distracted from their driving. But for right now, it appears that a fully-attentive human behind the wheel of a car would win in any match-up of self-driving vehicles to the old-fashioned car with driver relationship.
There’s a lot to recommend self-driving cars when and if they might work better than human drivers. Senior citizens can be slow to hit the brakes and can tragically make a mental error in distinguishing between the brake and gas pedals, as Santa Monica residents recall from the Farmer’s Market tragedy on July 16, 2003, when an 86-year-old driver crashed through a barricade and left 10 people dead and 63 injured.
With self-driving vehicles, we are getting plenty of heads-up warning about a future that might include them. But unlike our unbridled embrace of smart phones and the apps that they deploy, we are not required to welcome robot drivers with open arms to our streets. A lot of the positive impacts self-driving systems might bring (avoiding drunk and text-distracted driving) are now offered by simply calling Uber and letting someone else drive.
We’re further away from a self-driving car destiny than proponents might have us think if a fuzzy camera shot can cause collisions and even death. Of course that doesn’t mean we will “Just say No!” to the future. When I was a kid, our family visited New York City in the 1960s and part of the event that took us there included a family breakfast high atop a skyscraper. The cafeteria had a nifty feature: A water faucet that filled a glass with water when you pushed your empty glass between two electric “eyes.” I loved that thing, but that didn’t stop me from standing there for about 20 minutes filling and refilling a glass in hopes of catching it in a “fail.” Back then there were things tomorrow promised that even a kid could be skeptical about.