The future of driving not for me

I like to drive. I’m not talking about the running errands kind of driving, but rather getting out on the road and aimlessly going wherever the mood takes me. A couple of years ago I wandered for 3,500 miles over five days and, aside from crossing Illinois with road construction every 15 miles or so and being trapped in what felt like my own version of Steven Spielberg’s “The Duel,” it was just what I needed at that time.

That being said, I’m not the target market for driverless cars. And it doesn’t seem like anyone I know is either. My reasons for not being a fan are numerous, but after an autonomous shuttle in Las Vegas was in an accident Wednesday, less than an hour after put into service, I think the industry might need to slow down the rush. The people behind the “self-driving car” movement can’t be happy about what happened.

Now granted, Las Vegas probably isn’t the best place to try and launch a shuttle like that even if it makes sense. You try it out in a place like (swallowing hard) Alpena, someplace where the traffic isn’t as heavy but there is still a need for public transportation. Get the bugs ironed out then go to the big city.

I put “self-driving car” in quotation marks because as Malcolm Gladwell points out they really aren’t self-driving. Gladwell is a staffer for The New Yorker Magazine, has the “Revisionist History” podcast, and recently wrote a column in Car and Driver Magazine about the push behind “self-driving cars.”

As he points out, they aren’t self-driving because they are “tethered to the driving environment by a system of sensors and algorithms.” He also wrote they aren’t “autonomous vehicles” either because they actually are autonomous when there is a driver, as the driver is autonomous.

A “self-driving car” relies on a lot of factors that can’t be put into an algorithm, like the Northeast Michigan right-hand turn. You know, the one where the driver apparently can’t turn right onto a street or into a parking lot without first sweeping across the center line (sometimes into oncoming traffic) to give themselves ample clearance past the curb.

Nor can you factor in a driver who believes the left-hand turn lane is a transition lane for crossing traffic and then decides to just merge into the side of a car that is traveling legally in the lane they are merging into. And, it can’t take into account a driver who has a cell phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other and they are waving wildly during their conversation so you are unsure if they are actually paying attention to the road.

(Maybe Alpena isn’t right place to test the shuttle after all.)

Yes, if all vehicles were computer driven then we wouldn’t have to worry about that — as much. But, it’s not going to be that way for a long, long time.

The shuttle in Las Vegas was designed to avoid obstacles and stop in a hurry when it needs to do so. The problem here was that it couldn’t sense a 20-ton truck was going to back into it. Thankfully there weren’t any injuries.

But doesn’t that go back to the point about flaws?

It couldn’t sense — or sense in time — that there was a large truck backing up. It clearly didn’t sense it in time to stop. And driver error always has to be put into consideration, in this case maybe the truck driver.

New technology being put in these vehicles now has options being tested that allow a driver to take control of the vehicle. They also are testing sensors that take over for a driver who might lose focus or fall asleep (I fear people using that as a reason to get behind the wheel inebriated).

The reason for the driverless shuttle in Las Vegas, I presume, is to cut down on the number of drivers in the transit system and having fewer people on the payroll. Maybe I’m wrong, but the dollar is worshipped in Vegas.

Either way, I’m sticking to driving the old-fashioned way — me, the gas pedal, brake, steering wheel and music. Steve Murch can be reached via email at smurch@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5686. Follow Steve on Twitter @sm_alpenanews.