Driverless Vehicles. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
For virtually all Americans, from Baby Boomers to Millenials to Gen-X to Gen-whatever, driving is a right of passage. Growing up we transitioned from the back seat, to the front seat, to the drivers seat. Most of us learned to drive in our parents’ car (taught by them), and at some magic moment began to “borrow” that car for our own use. Eventually we got jobs and began buying our own car, van, or motorcycle.
Those first 3-4 years of driving had their great moments—“hey babe, wanna go out tonight? I’ll pick you up in my (mother’s) car." Obviously the word “mother’s” was lost in a cough or was left unspoken so that we could perpetuate the illusion that it was our car. Spoiler alert: our dates knew whose car we were driving. If not right away, once they sat down on those plastic seat covers, they knew. But it was usually an unspoken truth. After all, if we were going to use our parents' car for all the purposes that God intended, i.e. necking (etc) and lugging my band equipment around town, no one was really fooled (or really cared) about whose name was on the pink slip.
By the time I moved to New York in 1990, I had already gone through 10 pink slips of my own. And I was grateful that I learned to drive in some of the most formidable training grounds on the planet: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas, and San Francisco. And while traveling on business I even tempted fate and rented cars in Dublin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. I’ve always believed it was my ability to navigate the Hollywood Freeway, The Cross-Bronx, and the Kennedy Expressways that prepared me for driving anywhere.
Honestly, I never had an accident driving in Europe. That being said, I’m certain there remains a wheel cover from a 1988 Hertz car lying in the middle of a traffic circle somewhere in Scotland. Traveling as much as I did I became more and more comfortable letting someone else do the driving. In New York City, that included becoming a near expert on the quickest way to go from Point A to Point B.
In the mid-1990s my office was on 57th and West End in Manhattan (near the Hudson River). From that vantage point I learned the best way to get to the Battery, Grand Central, upper west side, or anywhere else in the city based on two factors: the weather and the time of day. Some days taking a cab was fastest, other days the subway, still other days a city bus, and believe it or not walking was an option. There were also gypsy cabs. These were drivers, usually without a hack license, using a borrowed Lincoln or Cadillac, cruising the streets looking for a fare. (That sort of entrepreneurship was illegal then and probably is still illegal.) If I was wearing a suit and a topcoat while walking, it wasn’t unusual for some enthusiastic driver in a Lincoln to make a u-turn in the middle of 57th Street during rush hour, pull up along side me and ask, “hey, you need a ride?”
Needless to say, I’m far less adventurous now, than I was in those days. Even when we drive to San Francisco, we usually leave the car wherever we’re staying and get a Lyft car to carry us from “A” to “B”. (I avoid Uber.*) I’ve grown to like Lyft’s service and find that it’s actually comparable or preferable to the hassle of driving, parking, and driving back. But we are, once again, moving into uncharted territory.
So now we’re being told that driverless vehicles are going to be the rage. Really. Apple, Google, Tesla, Amazon and others are well into development of driverless technology. I’m not quite certain I’m going there yet. Perhaps there may soon be an application in the city, but sitting in the backseat of a driverless vehicle moving along Van Ness during rush hour is not really appealing.
Driving around Mendocino County should give all of us pause about the reality of driverless vehicles. Think about driving—strike that—riding in a driverless vehicle from Jenner to Gualala; or Gualala to Elk. Hell, given the potholes, the wildlife, and the twisting and turning of our roads and highways, I doubt it’s a good idea to go driverless from Sea Ranch to Gualala.
The techies believe that driverless vehicles will be the next big thing. Near term, in rural America it’s probably more likely that driverless vehicles will do for transportation what the 8-track tape did for vinyl. (If you know what an 8-track tape is, you get it. If you don’t, ask someone ten years older for an explanation. In short, 8-tracks were awful.)
Google is experimenting and acknowledges at least one accident. Tesla, too, acknowledges at least one serious accident: a fatal encounter. In 2016 the driver of a Tesla Model S car was killed in a road accident after its Autopilot failed to recognize an oncoming truck, as reported in the online edition of DeZeen in July 2016. “According to the Florida Highway Patrol report, the Tesla's windscreen hit the bottom of the trailer as it passed underneath, and the car kept going, leaving the road. It continued, striking a fence, crossing a field and passing through another fence before finally hitting a pole about 30 metres south of the road. In a statement on Tesla's website, the company explained that the vehicle's sensors, which help to steer the car by identifying obstructions, had failed to recognize ‘the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky’.” Oops. Sorry about that.
Having thoroughly explored a number of scientifically-based ideas about future transportation—The Jetsons, Lost In Space, Sleeper—I think I'm going to handle the driving for the foreseeable future.
*If you're interested in why I don't use Uber
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