Fear And Loathing In The Driver’s Seat

OK, just to be clear: I am NOT a Luddite. I happen to like a lot of what passes as technology these days. I had a picture of an “etch-a-stone” with the caption “to show the grand-kids what we played with when we were young. It was a piece of granite with a chisel and hammer in a plastic frame. I enjoy having electricity (less so on the 21st of the month when the bill is due) and eating food that is caught and cleaned for me. And (perhaps the most important element of all time ) PLEASE don’t take my spell checker away (although the grammar checker is over rated). But there are limits to my credibility and tolerance for making life “easier” unnecessarily.

My most vehement protest involves the movement to make driving a car “safer” by making it (the car, that is) more intelligent. Frankly, I think this will ultimately prove to be a bad idea, because there will be the inevitable corollary that the driver will become more stupid. I am not sure how this is possible in many (perhaps most) cases but I continue to be amazed at human ingenuity, so I’m pretty sure people will figure something out. I am convinced that global intelligence is a constant…

A perfect example is the movement by car makers to include high(er) tech gadgets to “improve the driving experience.” In Michigan, it is against the law to text on your phone or tablet while driving. So why does the car designers think installing a tablet as the primary device controller will be a good idea? In every single car I have ever owned I could control the radio, heater and air-conditioner, lights and wipers by feel (usually within a couple of hours of driving). I never had to take my eyes from the road to turn the radio to another station after turning the defrosters on. Each device has its own knob or slider switch that was in a fixed position and had a specific shape. I worked by feel. “Advanced” cars have a single interactive touch display to handle navigation, entertainment, climate control, and personal communication. All at the touch/swipe of the screen. In the dark without looking, ALL controls feel exactly the same…like the surface of the mirror over my bathroom sink. I must look at the dashboard to see which icon I need to touch to bring up another screen with additional controls. Will someone please tell me HOW (and WHY) this is a good idea?

Even more scary in the long run is the intrinsic intelligence that is being added to high-end vehicles (and will eventually trickle down to the rest of the market). The cars of tomorrow (later today, actually) have sensors that look out for and announce if there is a car in your blind spot, if you are drifting out of your lane, even apply the brakes automatically if you don’t react in time to avoid an accident with an obstruction in front of your car. (In fairness, the rear-view camera is a pretty good idea as even with the best of mirrors it can be hard to see directly behind your vehicle, and the self-parallel parking car feature in a couple of models is a feature I would engage in a heart beat…I haven’t parallel parked by car in several years unless I could pull in at either end. I would rather walk several blocks than risk a stress-induced heart attack.)

Ultimately, the end result of making the car safer and easier to drive is for drivers to become less attentive and more distracted than they already are. The last thing we need is drivers paying less attention to their surroundings and other vehicles than are out here already. As a former biker and truck driver you come to realize that you need to drive every car on the road, not just yours. You really have to exercise defensive driving when you are either driving a bomb (propane truck) or are surrounded by nature rather than several thousand pounds of metal (motorcycle and bicycle). You have to anticipate the actions of everyone else around you and prepare to take evasive actions at a moments notice. (From experience, I would rather drive behind a drunk driver than one possessing a cell phone. At least I can predict what the reaction of the drunk will be…a distracted phone user is totally random.)

Now the last and ultimate direction this will go is the vehicle that you don’t have to drive at all. Google is working on self-driving cars that will be able (?) to compete with human-directed missiles. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of this as I currently live in one of the most dangerous locales on the planet. I have seen more vehicles run red lights here in [REDACTED] than driving in vastly larger metropolitan cities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco/Oakland. Waiting less than 5 seconds after the light changes to green in your direction is a modern form of Russian Roulette. To place enough computational power in a car to safely transit our roads without an organic brain in control seems highly unlikely anytime soon (say, in MY lifetime…or what is left of it). And besides, Google is too late, anyway. They already make vehicles you don’t have to drive.

They are called taxi’s.

Phred

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