The Driverless Car Phenomenon


Understand that the daily news on the whole concept of driverless cars is more hype than reality. Nevertheless, multiple articles, on a daily basis, in all sorts of media, seem to describe driverless cars, driverless Uber, and on and on. The hype for the driverless car, or autonomous vehicle, is quite reminiscent of the “Phenom’s” that are regularly on the cover of Sports Illustrated and billed as the next Mickey Mantle or Bart Starr (my age is showing isn’t it?).

However, the concept of the driverless or autonomous vehicle as a technology, no matter how feasible financially, morally, or practical, needs to be discussed. So I will.

Technology for Technology’s Sake

Somewhere in the far reaches of my mind, I seem to recall a common admonishment from my Mom and Dad: “just because you can do it doesn’t make it a good idea.” I think that the first time I heard that cautionary note came one day when I decided to see what it was like on top of the roof. And over my growing up years I heard that phrase over and over. And, I confess, I’ve taken that admonition and used it on my own offspring when they decided to explore the bounds of good judgment.

And so it seems that the common “just because you can do it. . .” phrase appears to apply more and more to the whole notion of the driverless car. From a technology standpoint, the driverless car requires the creation of artificial intelligence (AI). The driverless car needs to have some pretty sophisticated instructions to navigate a street in a metropolitan area. I recently took a spin in a new Mercedes that featured AI in the form of “look Ma, no hands.” You could take your hands off of the steering wheel and the car would go down the interstate and stay in its own lane. The technology is a little GPS (actually a lot of GPS) and a downward looking camera that monitored the location of the car in relation to the two white lane markers. Unfortunately, the car would drift a little to the left and then the car would correct, and move it to the right. In essence you had the car weaving to the left a few feet, followed by a correction to the right and then a correction to the left. I felt like the car was being driven by a drunk. But hey! Technology, right?

More than once we have seen news items where a Tesla auto drive has crashed. Or, that Google’s attempt is having problems crashing. Tesla has even noted that the driverless mode really isn’t a driverless mode. It just means “look Ma, no hands” in a $100,000 car. But there is more to the driverless car than the practicality of just having you hands in your lap while the car is in motion. Consider one of the caveats of the advocates of the driverless car: it is only meant for urban areas. Huh? Tell me, exactly which urban area? How about the 405 from Orange County to LA? Or, the 95 from Miami to anywhere the 95 goes. I now see that the tech gurus of driverless cars are covering their bets and saying that the driverless car isn’t intended for high speed interstate travel. Okay, that’s fine. How about a driverless car from LaGuardia to Midtown Manhattan. I think people will buy tickets to see driverless cars operate from LaGuardia to anywhere. Call Uber and watch the show.

And then I hear from the insurance media and the insurance tech gurus that with driverless cars, people won’t have to buy insurance. Why? Because accidents are a thing of the Stone Age? No more wrecks, hence no need for insurance, hence insurance companies will lose business and probably go out of business. Got that Barney? No wrecks! Now do you honestly think that insurance companies are faced with extinction due to the driverless car? Actually, insurance will be better than ever. Why? Because if you take the driver out of the equation and the car has an accident, then the liability for that accident moves from the driver to the car manufacturer. In essence the driverless car will be the greatest boom to products liability the world has ever seen. Think of it. The responsibility shifts from that of the operator of the vehicle to the manufacturer of the vehicle. Every fender bender, every cut and scrape now falls on the manufacturer, not the buyer or owner of the vehicle. Exactly how much will the product liability add to the cost of the vehicle?

And then there is this: gravel and unimproved roadways. I don’t care what major metropolitan area you are in, there are streets and alleyways that are largely unimproved and certainly don’t have lane markers. So, if you and the wife decided to take a drive in October to the countryside and see the fall colors and maybe stop at a roadside stand or famers market and buy a little cider and apples and late-season veggies, your driverless car isn’t going to get you there. How about if you are in a metro area such as Des Moines, Omaha, Santa Fe, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, or any metro smaller than what is on the Acela line? My guess is that you and your fancy driverless car is out of luck.

driverless-2Hey Tesla. Let’s see you handle this road. Its 20 below zero. How are the batteries? What’s on the other side of the hill? A stalled car, a cow, or a pickup coming at you? It’s a gravel road and it is only one lane wide.

Now, if you drive a tractor or large farm equipment, check out Farmers Edge, which has pioneered the development of automated/precision farming. See, I’m not all negative on the driverless concept; just when the hype is little more than just that.

Coming Next: The moral side of driverless cars


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