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Self-driving cars: Have we really thought this through?

The shortcomings of super-car technology. (For instance, its inability to detect pedestrians)

Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

So it looks as though this whole “self-driving car” thing is for real. Nissan says it will deliver one to market within seven years—despite the many drivers who demonstrate every day that they don’t need some fancy autonomous vehicle in order to completely zone out behind the wheel. I’m doing it right now while I type this column. [Also takes bite of hamburger.]

Before I go any further, this must be noted for the record: Somewhere, at some time along the way, someone decided that it was more important to design a self-driving car than a flying car. This person should be forcibly restrained and waterboarded with a pail of my tears. Flying cars are the only reason I yearned to become a grown-up, and without them adult life has been a pungent morass of soul-consuming misery. Thanks for nothing, anonymous dream-crusher.

Anyway, I’m skeptical about the robocar. Sure, automakers like Nissan boast of working out the kinks by collaborating with researchers at leading universities. This sounds great until you read the following quote from a Japanese professor who’s considered a pioneer in the field: “It is hard or almost impossible to detect pedestrians, especially children and cyclists, and to forecast their behaviours.” Awesome! So we’ve totally nailed this super-car technology except for the part about not driving directly into people. I’ll take two!

Human drivers have—and will always have—an advantage over lasers and sensors. Through experience, we can sense when a pedestrian is about to dart into traffic. We see it in their eyes and their body language. And that allows us to react in the proper way—by laying on the horn and shouting out the window, “Keep it on the curb, dumb-ass!”

Consider some of the other shortcomings of the self-driving car:

  • Robbed of the ability to get behind the wheel and rev the engine in a needlessly aggressive fashion, how exactly are the young men of the future supposed to persuade young women to desire them? Through genial conversation and disarming romantic gestures? What is this, the Renaissance??
  • The muscle cars of yore had tough names like Cobra and Mustang—monikers that suggested speed, power, danger. Are people really going to line up to buy the Nissan Dawdle?
  • The intricate internal software may leave your car vulnerable to hackers who could override your vehicle’s systems and program it to take you somewhere horrible, like Burger King or Saskatoon.
  • One of the great joys of life is witnessing a road-rage incident between two hotheads. It’s just not going to be the same when it’s an exchange between tech-laden automobiles:

Nissan Dawdle: “101101010101111!”

Lexus Tedium: “01010101#%@*01110!!!!”

There’s a bigger issue, though: Have we really thought this through?

Today’s humans represent the most impatient incarnation of our species ever. We get uppity when it takes more than 0.46 seconds to download that video of a bulldog on a trampoline. And we’re going to get jazzed about iCars that drive at the speed limit and come to a complete stop at each and every four-way? I predict some people will sit back and let their shiny new 2025 Mercedes Blah putter away for as long as two minutes before grabbing the wheel, stepping on the gas and hollering, “This is how you drive, Grandma Roboto!”

And oh, by the way, let’s not forget: driving is fun. It’s about more than getting there—it’s about calculating the quickest route, making the slickest pass, finding the best parking spot. There’s a thrill in speeding into a corner, hitting the apex just right, sliding through the apex because there was black ice on the road, spinning the wheel madly while screaming, “No! Sweet Jesus, nooooooo!” and correcting it just in time to avoid death by plummeting.

Many questions about the autonomous car have yet to be answered. Will we be able to “drive” drunk if we’re not really driving? Will it be okay to make out while in motion? Can Rob Ford send it on its own to pick up a “cannelloni” on Dixon Road?

But the biggest question is: do we really need another activity that we experience passively? Take a good look at us—do we want to off-load yet another activity so we can free up more time to stare into screens? And do any of us—any of us—yearn to see a movie car chase that features fuel-efficient acceleration and properly signalled turns?

Follow Scott Feschuk on Twitter @scottfeschuk


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