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Driverless vehicles: not such a great idea

Better to leave the big driving decisions in human hands.


Gathering data from the environment. PHOTO: FOTOLIA

The technology wizards have spent roughly $80 billion over the past three years on driverless vehicles, according to the Brookings Institute. Acknowledging the limitations of its data gathering, the Washington, DC research firm says it’s likely the amount is much higher.

Concerned about all the effort going into developing transportation that relieves drivers of responsibility for what’s happening on the road? Don’t worry, you’re not a Luddite. There is reason to question the driverless preoccupation.

Experts and enthusiasts will tout the safety benefits. In 2016, more than 37,000 deaths in the US were attributed to motor vehicle accidents. In Canada (2015) there were more than 1,800 fatalities. More than 90% of deaths are attributed to human error and distracted drivers are responsible for much of the carnage. Bob Lutz, former vice-chair of General Motors, suggests when autonomous technology is up and running properly, this number would be reduced to 5%.

Looking past Lutz’s magical forecasting and on a cheerier note, occupants of a driverless vehicle will have the time to concentrate on those distractions, such as their smart phones, Netflix or reading an engrossing-e-book; why, it will even be okay to have a nap. No parking? Your ride will drop you off and find a spot. The disabled, or seniors in their 80s, 90s and 100s no longer allowed behind a steering wheel needn’t worry. There will be no steering wheel and they’ll have transportation to any destination. And feel free to tie one on after work because drinking and driving won’t be an issue. Even better, the major victims of all this enhanced safety will be personal injury lawyers.

How will these Jetson-like vehicles work? They’ll gather data using a combination of sensors, radar, cameras and algorithms firing up lightning-fast computer power working with GPS technology to build a 3D model of the vehicle’s immediate environment. Artificial intelligence will identify other vehicles, people, lane markings and speed signs, crunch the data, plan and execute, then adapt to changes as they occur.

Getting all that right is sure putting a lot of faith in technology, and there are some red flags to consider: like a planet-wide electromagnetic pulse taking out everything electronic. Okay, that’s unlikely and would probably screw up a regular car, but who hasn’t had trouble with random computer meltdowns? There’s going to be a lot of data in the software and ample opportunity for glitches. So think of the risk multiplied across a national transportation system. And consider the security issues. There are no impregnable firewalls. Beware of mischief and malicious intent. Driverless vehicles will also be putting a lot of faith in GPS mapping that sometimes provides misdirection with comic and/or aggravating results. How will roadblocks be handled? Also, weather conditions can impair sensing conditions and the technology won’t know what to do when it encounters a policeperson directing traffic because it can’t read human hand signals.

There are also legal implications. If there is a mishap, who is to blame: the car manufacturer; the municipality; or the tech providers?

Much of the speculative safety advantage evaporates if there isn’t widespread adoption by drivers. The techno-doubters will inject all that human unpredictability we currently endure. And let’s not overlook the so-far unimagined calamities caused by technology. Plus, there’s a danger the skill level of drivers will diminish.

No kidding! Do we really need to find another way to make us dumber and more disconnected from our surroundings? Using this technology to enhance vehicle and road safety makes sense, but drivers must be responsible for what happens on the road. Reduce distractions and perhaps consider retesting periodically to ensure drivers are focused and sharp, but leave the big decisions in human hands.



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