Cars

Next stop on automation continuum: Driverless cars?

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Barbara Banaian, Times Writers Group
Published 7:00 p.m. CT Sept. 30, 2017

Every day we read more about driverless technology. In the meantime, our roads are becoming crowded and chaotic. A trip across town can take 30 minutes, and a trip to Minneapolis well over an hour.   

The concept of driverless cars is intriguing as we consider the possibilities.  

Driverless cars (also known as autonomous or self-driving cars) will travel without humans controlling them every moment.  They will be controlled by computer algorithms, allowing them to communicate with each other.   

The goal is for cars to travel close together without accidents, freeing up considerable space by having them all move at the same speed.  This, in turn, will save a lot of money in highway repairs and building additional lanes.  Traffic jams will lessen. 

They also could help reduce traffic deaths, which number about 35,000 annually plus countless more injuries.  Cars are certainly safer per passenger mile than 25 years ago, but inter-car communication could save more lives.  

Why haven’t we graduated to a different technology? 

In many ways we have. Automation has already begun with cruise control, automatic braking in response to sensors, and self-parking vehicles. 

Automation is a continuum along which we are traveling.  We still have overrides on these automatic features. But as automation continues, will we still be able to switch to manual controls?   

Maybe the steering wheel and brake pedal will become a thing of the past. Maybe we won’t even need to own a car in the future. Just as you can ask to be picked up now with an app on your phone, you could hail or schedule a driverless car.  

They aren’t perfect, but driverless cars will have better judgment than many people.   Consider airplanes, with their automatic takeoff and landing features.  Many people would rather be in an automated car than with an inebriated — or tired, or distracted — driver.  And there will be enormous benefits to senior citizens for whom freedom will be restored.

There are problems to surmount. What if you are in a driverless car and the car ahead of you is manual.  Would your car be able to communicate with it?  

There will also be ethical concerns to somehow write into the algorithms in a safe, incorruptible way. 

Is this just the euphoria that accompanies every new technology before we are disappointed with results? 

About 100 years ago, many people were opposed to cars, calling them horseless carriages.   

There was a lot of anxiety about people driving “horseless” carriages at first.  According to the history website Timeline, there was a law in England, the Red Flag Act, that “required self-propelled vehicles to be led at walking pace by someone waving a red flag.”  An article in the New York Times in 1885 wondered if this would “destroy the usefulness of a horseless carriage.” 

Even though the law was written for trains, it was applied to cars.  Eventually the Red Flag Act was replaced by the Locomotives On Highway Act. 

That was in 1896, when cars would travel 12 to 14 mph.  We travel just a little faster these days as we drive that automation continuum. 

Business Insider predicts, “A Tesla will drive a fully autonomous mode from LA to NYC in 2017.”   Apple, too, is working on an autonomic car, and has been testing them on California roads.   The big automakers are also working on different models.   Ford and Uber are investing a lot in this technology, where smaller companies, too, are experimenting. 

The returns on these investments could take a decade to come to fruition, and all hyped technologies go through a trough of disillusionment. But I think we will see truly autonomous cars before too long. And they will change the value of everything from trains to highways to garages. Will our homes of the future even have garages?   

It is amazing that soon we will have cars that can navigate without input from people. I am looking forward to climbing into the backseat and opening a book while the car brings me to my destination. 

This is the opinion of Barbara Banaian, a professional pianist who lives in the St. Cloud area. Her column is published the first Sunday of the month.

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