Will Driverless Cars Be Too Sensitive?

Martin Romjue
Posted on November 6, 2015
How fast would a driverless car really go in no-risk mode? What control would we have?

How fast would a driverless car really go in no-risk mode? What control would we have?

How fast would a driverless car really go in no-risk mode? What control would we have?

How fast would a driverless car really go in no-risk mode? What control would we have?

Indulge me for a moment on three technology related rants:

  1. While using a self-checkout at a Wal-Mart last month, the station froze up twice because it kept sensing something amiss, accusing me via screen prompt of improperly placing an item on the bagging platform. All I did was scan the item and place it next to the bags. I had to twice flag down a clerk who entered a secret code to unfreeze the machine.
  2. Several times this year, my hotel card key signaled red when inserting into the door lock. I had to go down to the front desk each time to get rekeyed. In one instance, my smartphone had demagnetized the card key, while in other instances, I couldn’t find a reason.
  3. While trying to extend my metered paid parking, two of four touchscreen self-pay kiosk portals were out of order. Long lines ensued. We left and found parking elsewhere.

These episodes got me rethinking all the tingle-talk I’ve heard about the wonders of driverless cars. Recent polls show growing public skepticism, including among the social-media-tech-savvy Millennials. If more basic self-checkout machines, self-pay portals, and hotel key cards routinely malfunction because of over-sensitivity, then how will digitally complex driverless vehicles deal with uncertainty, risks and unexpected situations?

Governments will subject self-driving vehicles to stringent safety rules, and levy all types of I.T. requirements. Which means programmers must plan for every possible circumstance and allow no margin for error — no injuries or lawsuits. What about below situations that require human common sense?

  • Person in a crosswalk: Would a driverless car literally wait until no foot is in the walk and the pedestrian has cleared the intersection by at least 10 feet?
  • Freeway traffic backed up 1,000 feet from your exit: Would a driverless car stay in its lane and wait? Or would it do what we all do: Inch over to the shoulder and drive a clear path to the exit?
  • Emergency vehicle overrides: How would driverless vehicles pull over to let the vehicles pass? Or would the driverless car network trigger a lengthy “system shutdown” in a multi-block radius of wherever emergency vehicles are traveling? God bless the stricken, but imagine the wait times and detours.
  • Accidents: We all use our judgment on whether we need to stop and help or if the situation is under control and we can move on. What would driverless cars do? Another overly cautious “system shutdown?” What if you need to stop and help but the soulless car whisks you away? Driverless cars will have technical glitches — think of Toyota’s sudden acceleration problems.
  • Weather: Would a driverless car confuse a hailstone with an accident impact? Automatically drive 20 mph slower in a drizzle? Avoid roadways with a ¼-inch of snow? And here’s my favorite challenge to driverless cars:
  • Suicide jumpers: That’s an only-in-L.A. thing. Last year, while my wife and I were traveling on the freeway, we hit a standstill. A distraught man at the edge of an overpass bridge was depressed about something that was none of my business or of any other stuck motorist. Police set up massive balloon platforms across all lanes that resembled those inflatable bouncy padded rooms for kids’ birthday parties. After realizing this drama could go on for hours, motorists started making reverses and U-turns toward the nearest exit, which required slowly popping your tires over a low-curbed median. We criss-crossed our way through South Los Angeles (“South Central” in 90s-era gang movies) until we could get back on the right path. What would a driverless car do?

Maybe technology will figure out all the unexpected obstacles based on real-time traffic monitoring and GPS-based re-routing. I’ve read all the optimistic predictions of driverless vehicles zipping through intersections inches apart in a constant flow sans traffic signals. We also may need fewer vehicles since they’ll be used more efficiently as travelers lease, rent, or own shared cars.

What concerns the public is the governmental quest for safety, which would snuff the human instict for control. People fear a regulatory structure with the default positions of wait, go slow, not now. Will we be able to override our mobile cubicles? Open the door and get out when we want? American culture has a long tradition of independence, mobility, and personal autonomy. Driverless cars go against our collective psyche just as on-demand consumer choices and expectations are killing off patience.

And if you think road rage is bad now, picture the multiplied stress levels among a slowly moving, safety-pampered public fuming at being boxed in, controlled, and wondering, “Why is my cubicle stopping again?” The government might have to mandate vandalism sensors in driverless cars to bust and fine us if we dare to rage against the ghosts in the machine.

Related Topics: autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, Editor's Edge Blog, industry trends, LCT editor, Martin Romjue, Safety, self-driving vehicles, traffic assessment, vehicle technology

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