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« Success and Fate | Main | Life’s lessons I learned from my bicycle »

Autonomous Cars

People do such a lousy job of driving cars they killed some 40,000 people in the US last year. (109 every day.) One answer it seems is technology, self-driving cars that take over the responsibility for driving safely, by refraining from running into other people.

The only problem is the technology is still in the development stages and cannot be trusted on public roads. The robotics in these autonomous vehicles cannot be fully relied on to avoid each and every pedestrian or cyclist. The answer is to put a driver behind the wheel to override the robot should an emergency arise.

Last week the inevitable happened in Tempe, Arizona, when a 49 year-old woman, wheeling her bicycle across the street was struck and killed by an autonomous Uber car. It was not a “Driverless” car as it had a backup driver behind the wheel. Both car and driver failed to “See” the unfortunate lady, and stop.

Technology is not the answer, it is the problem.

Modern cars have become so easy to drive, with automatic transmissions, cruse controls, etc., that there is less and less for a driver to do. Is it any wonder people become distracted?

 I am not excusing distracted driving, it is wrong and the crux of the whole problem. But it is human nature, we are not robots, our minds don’t work that way. Most cannot sit still and do nothing, even if ‘nothing’ includes keeping one’s eyes and mind on the road ahead.

So by putting a driver in a driverless car, and take away the last thing he has to do, namely steer the car and work the stop and go pedals with his feet, then expect him to have his eyes on the road constantly? I can see where that might not work too well.

Cars used to be manual transmission, (Stick shift.) I grew up in the UK with cars like these. We needed two hands and two feet to drive. You could not eat, or drink coffee, or do anything else while driving because you needed at least one hand to steer, while shifting gears with the other. Simultaneously working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with your feet.

Driving in city traffic was constantly shifting up through the gears to speed up, then shifting down again as you slowed down. It was almost impossible to be distracted. Driving occupied your mind fully from the moment you started the engine, until you reached your destination and parked.

I am not suggesting we all go back to stick shift, although it would be a good thing if people learned to drive that way. Do you want to keep your teenager off the cell phone? Make their first car a stick shift. And why not use technology to make it so a cell phone won’t work while the car is in motion?

Instead of cruise control set by the driver, how about one that limits the top speed to the speed limit controlled from outside the vehicle. And a control device that limits how close you drive behind another vehicle for any given speed?

How about cyclists and pedestrians have a micro-chip implant that would warn autonomous cars of their presence. I am being facetious of course, that would trample on our human rights. But sadly the lady from Tempe, AZ, who ironically was both pedestrian and cyclist, lost the ultimate human right. Namely, the right to live.   


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Reader Comments (14)

Most cars in the UK still have a manual gearbox, but I still see lots of people on their phone as I commute to work each day.

Part of the problem is that it is socially acceptable to distract oneself whilst driving, in the same way that drink driving used to be socially acceptable.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Mobile phone use at the wheel has been illegal in the UK for a long time and is quite strictly enforced. Yet you won't go five minutes without seeing someone breaking the law. Maybe that's why more and more UK drivers choose automatic cars (well over 50% in London) - so they can text and talk more conveniently while driving...

A friend an I hit a moose years ago driving at night in Maine. I was the passenger and saw the moose run across in front of us, but there was no avoiding it. Having looked at the video of the unfortunate woman killed in AZ, the physics are remarkably similar (although our moose ran from the right). You note the movement, recognize the hazard and then brake. However, by the time my friend braked, we had already hit the moose.

In my opinion, your average driver would also have hit the woman. A more cautious driver would perhaps have noticed some movement and slowed just in case, but it's hard to tell if that could have happened. She was crossing away from an intersection in the dark and should at least have been observing and yielding to the car traffic. The Uber car was not speeding. Neither the "driver" nor the victim were intoxicated.

But certainly the car should have gone into "panic braking" mode ASAP - which did not appear to happen. Funny thing - I own a slightly older and cheaper Volvo and it has as standard equipment a "CitySafe" braking system. If it detects (using an infrared laser) an imminent collision, it applies full braking. And it works. I once approached a toll booth barrier a bit too fast for it and BAM! - I was stopped.

One question I have not seen answered is "Does Uber disengage existing car safety systems in order to facilitate the functions of its autonomous controls?" If so, does this mean the victim might have survived had the car been a "standard" Volvo with all systems functioning? I bet we will find out.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

I would gladly mount a transponder to my bike that talked to cars.
Even non-self driving ones have a lot of sensors these days.
We could use a signal to make the cars aware (make us look 'bigger') of the bike or pedestrian, and likewise give the rider/walker a signal that a car was approaching.
After all this is how aircraft in flight are tracked, not by actual radar signals but by radar picking up the transponder signal.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

You must have only read the headlines and not studied the accident, which happened a few miles from where I live. The person that was hit was jay walking from a section of road with trees, at night, with the only street light further up the road (not shining on the pedestrian). If you view the car video, she does not become visible to the driver until she gets in the headlights at the last second, leaving zero time to respond. If you were driving your regular car instead of the autonomous vehicle, you would have most likely also killed her. If pedestrians break the law by darting out from the bushes in front of cars, we can not put full blame on the driver. Eventually the radar on autonomous cars will give better night vision than humans which should help save us from killing idiots.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLionel Space

Most driver assist and “safety” enhancements don’t work with manual transmissions. Can’t auto brake and have the car stall from not down-shifting, after all.

As for self-braking cars, that is a scary prospect. Just one of many technologies doing more harm than good scenarios is passing a car: one comes up to it close before passing. Imagine the result when your car brakes suddenly, thinking you are going to plow into the slower vehicle, not going to pass it. Won’t let you pass on a country road where you have timed it not to hit head-on with that semi coming the other direction!

Why the push for autonomous vehicles? Money. Lots of money thrown at it by investors with an eye to big returns. No call from Drivers to give up driving, the inflection here being same as Real Bike Riders vs. weekend warriors or tourists on rental bikes, or adults on dockless bikes that haven’t a clue how to ride, crying for “Safer” roads to ride on (see also the movie ‘The Driver’, or go to the Baja 1000 later this year).

If a new generation never learns to drive, well, that’d be the same as kids not caring or learning to ride a bicycle. Electric “Assist” bikes only anyone?

Pretty sad.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

My 2014 Volvo is standard transmission and has the CitySafe automatic braking. It's possibly a misconception that the two (auto braking and a manual) are incompatible as it would only be the cheaper low-end cars that have manual transmissions in the US and they often also lack the more expensive safety features. There is a Consumer Reports "Talking Cars" video where this is discussed. So, just to reiterate - it is perfectly possible to have such systems with manual transmissions (and they already exist).

In the case of my Volvo the engine is killed when the automatic braking is triggered. Having experienced it (and driven it many thousands of both city and highway miles) the system seems quite effective. If a car pulled in front of me and slowed enough to trigger it I would be happy for the engine to stall rather than smashing into the other car.

There are more sophisticated systems that do even more. Ten years ago I had a BMW with a manual transmission (single dry clutch) that shifted itself, or you could shift it with the usual linkage. Or with paddles. Quite neat. I sold it to a friend who still drives it, so quite reliable as well. I mention this to show that it's perfectly possible for these control systems to disengage the clutch as required as well.

The traditional manual transmission is dying out in cars now - I'd guess 80% of Americans can't "drive stick". Add in the fact many Millenials don't even bother to get a driving licence and you can see the future

When I moved from Canada to the US, my car driving licence was transferred with just a written test. But I had to take my motorcycle test over completely. When I moved to the UK, my Canadian driving licence was accepted as equivalent (US not accepted) but I was only allowed to drive an automatic if I accepted the transfer. And the car I bought (and had been driving for a year) was standard shift.

"What about my motorcycle?"

"Oh - you'll have the full motorcycle licence"

"So I can ride my 700 lb motorcycle on the wrong side of the road at night in the rain, through a roundabout, shifting its manual gearbox WITH MY FOOT but I can't drive my own car????"

(I took my driving test again in Canada and had them note it was a "manual gearbox". I have had a full UK licence for almost 20 years)

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

My "good" cars have always been manual while my beaters automatic because that's all that was available. I've eaten pizza and drank pop while driving my stick shift Camaro, without cup holders no less. It just requires more skill an attention. The reason people get distracted when driving modern cars is all the nanny systems like ABS, traction control, stability control, lane guidance, etc, that replace driver skills. It takes all the skill and fun out of driving to where it's just about getting from A to B. Today any moron can drive and they do.

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

My 1970 Porsche 911T rear engine, rear drive, has NO assist of any kind 5-speed stick shift. even first gear is on a dog leg So driving the car needs MY full attention. My 2010 Volvo XC60 fully automatic. warning sensors the lot. My Porsche Boxster fully auto, I have yet to even see the engine it is fully enclosed behind the seats, Which one do I prefer to drive The old 911 I feel in complete control. Which do I drive the least the 911T I am always afraid that some idiot on drugs using his cell phone driving a Honda will plow into me.But then I come from a generation that had adding machines with a handle!!! and dials and cords on the phone,

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

So which comes first?

The system designers tell users to pay attention and require drivers to take over in case the systems can’t handle the situation. The users are sold on the “Auto-driving” and “Assisted-driving” sales pitch, so naturally expect that system they paid for to do its job. But when it can’t, the car companies get off the hook because All systems require drivers to pay attention and leave it up to the driver to get out of tight situations.

Good luck determining when the computer can’t handle it. Ya better read the manual very carefully, of which 99% of owners don't bother. Worse, not every situation will be covered. Of course manufacturers cover their ass.

A better idea: skip the unreliable computer. Robots need us more than we need them:

"Get your filthy robotic hands off my steering wheel…"

March 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Great article Dave.

I disagree with your general conclusion, that technology is the problem. Autonomous cars, when (not if) they get approved, will not be perfect, but they will have much lower rates of traffic fatalities than manned automobiles (if they can't prove that they would, they won't get approved).

I've always thought (like you suggest) that we should have technology that disables cell phones in moving cars. Or at least the front seats.

And speed limits broadcast by streetside transmitters and mandated to be followed by cars that receive and obey those messages, also a great idea.

Even your facetious one, transmitters for pedestrians and cyclists, sounds great to me! Anybody that wants to be more visible to automated cars could wear one. The problem there would be, what if pranksters threw them in the street at autonomous cars to watch them skid?

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

Hi Dave, Learned to drive in a "stick." Took my first drivers test in one too. I have 2 cars, both sticks, and have owned automatics as well. The big problem is people and their "Electronic Leashes." As others have also stated, you can't go minutes without some dumb ass talking or texting. The "entitled" pedestrians think they can step out from between parked cars and you are to stop. That doesn't work in LA. I can see the self driving cars some day in the future for disabled or elderly who can't drive anymore, but I still think they need a human to be a second chance. I also believe it should be mandatory that you learn to drive a manual transmission car and take your test in it too. It makes you think about what you are doing and a better driver. Besides, if you can drive a "stick" you can drive anything. As for us cyclists, LA has become such a shithole for safe cycling that I don't think any type of warnings would work as people just drive as they see fit and FU to everyone else. I'm all for it, but society has changed so much here in the last 5-10 years I don't think it will get better. Sad.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I think it would be relatively simple to restrict mobile phone use to "static" situations, but then what if you are on a bus? Or if you are the passenger, in a car speeding an injured child to the hospital? I suppose you might make it so that to activate past the lock screen on a moving cell phone the user would have to negotiate a sequence that required two hands, but that might just make things worse.

I've worked in factories with delivery robots - totally autonomous machines that deliver parts or move product from one place to another without human intervention. I believe Amazon has a modern version operating in its warehouses. The units I saw operated within lanes painted on the floor and had an array of sensors plus a "touch bar" that halted the robot if it touched anything.

Of course, in an industrial setting, the other human workers are also trained, and follow the rules or get fired. So the robots get on with their work mostly unobstructed.

But consider pedestrian (and some cyclists) traffic in London or NYC. They barely follow existing rules to save their lives, so for certain when autonomous cars are predominant, everyone will "know" you can walk out right in front of a Google car and it will just stop for you. Always, Every time. I cannot imagine these cars will make much progress on busy streets unless pedestrians are somehow corralled, or jaywalking becomes a felony.

March 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

My entire life, I drove stick shift cars until I retired and bought a "fancy car". It has what they call "smart" cruse control. If you come up on another car closer than a distance you set, it brakes. My wife tells me that the car is finally smarter than I am.

March 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBill K

Hi Dave, Must add a little more. People will not "police" themselves ! Whether it's talking or texting while driving, running stop signs, failing to yield the right of way etc....As I mentioned before , LA is a shithole for cycling unless you go offroad or on a designated bike path (except then you have to deal with all the other "user idiots" who ride like they drive). Today the "entitled" ones think they can do as they please and not follow the rules so they live their lives this way. Whatever happened to morals, manners and courtesy ?

March 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

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