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PabloG: Ahead of California by a couple driverless weeks

March 14, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Driverless cars aren’t just rolling into the future in my mind. If you’ve stopped by here before, maybe you read my little tale of two brothers, one with an autonomous car who lived on the other side of the state from his brother who refused to abandon his analog car.

Along the way through a couple of days of their tale, I raised the issues of:

1. Government restrictions to push the driverless future by allowing only autonomous cars on the Interstates. States could do the same with major freeways. The rest of us drive-it-ourself schmucks were stuck on the back roads. Eventually, your “old” car might be relegated to being unable to leave your hometown or a place a few blocks from home.

2. The psychological impact of cars that can follow one another bumper-to-bumper in long chains at 90 mph on the freeway or turn left with minimal gaps in city traffic, let alone the impact on older drivers letting go of the wheel.

3. Giving up the joy of driving that so many of us still feel.

4. The government is in control of your car, potentially, and at the very least, you can be tracked in yet another way. You cannot take the long way home. You cannot speed. It also could be a boon for drug dealers, wife beaters, robbers and loons. After all, if the car doesn't make mistakes, the police won't be nab the guys who usually get caught with the bag of heroin or the outstanding warrant initially because they were pulled over because they drive stupid. (Watch any episode of "Cops" or talk to your local law enforcers. I know I'm right on this.)

5. Insurance rates will drive the switch because the cars will be safer and analog drivers will eventually pay a price, assuming, of course, the autonomous systems work.

I also wonder about whether car brands will matter because so long as your transpo-blob delivers you from Point A to Point B safety, you won’t care. No worries about ride and handling because you’ll be sitting there using your iPad to answer e-mails. And, maybe road rage will lessen. Your GoogleCar won’t care about the guy in the old OldsmoSaturn in front of you, going 20 less than the speed limit when you’re in a hurry. It will calmly find a way around him.

Lest you thought I was being the Dystopian Future Guy, the folks in California, who brought you medical marijuana, Arnold as a governor and general legislative chaos, are now considering rules to govern the driverless future that is expected to arrive sometime around 2020.

California is requiring its DMV to write rules about driverless cars by the end of this year, according to a report from USAToday.

Among the issues:

— How to determine if the cars are safe. Will the manufacturers self-certify? (Scary given that my daughter’s 7-year-old Cobalt is now a scary transportation question-mark with a faulty ignition switch. Also, I grew up in the era of the Pinto and the Corvair.)

— Does a driver need to be in the car, or even an occupant, or can it be programmed to drop folks of and then go find a parking space on its own? And if it smacks into another car or a fire hydrant or runs over someone in the process, does the owner-nondriver hold the responsibility? Who gets points against the license? The driver or the car?

— How do we ensure drivers still have the skills to take over if the system fails? If you don’t think that’s important, I direct your attention to the Asiana jet crash in San Francisco last summer, where the real pilots might not have known what to do when the automatic pilot wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do.

California also seems worried about privacy in the world of the connected self-driving car, including the setting of insurance rates based on data mined by the manufacturers or insurance industry from the car itself.

On the automakers side, the Mercedes-Benz reps said they shouldn’t be held responsible for certifying the drivers, nor is it a good idea for every state to set its own autonomous car rules, which will result in a patchwork of regs nationwide.

It’s not too soon to think about this stuff.

Nissan aims to have a driverless car on the road by 2020.

Toyota unveiled a prototype last year.

Google already has test vehicles out on the road.

Pay attention, lest you find the freedom of the road is no longer there.


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