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Friday, April 5, 2019

Will Self-Driving Cars Drive Humans Out from Behind the Wheel?

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy wikimedia
Last week I had a chance to take a ride in a Tesla Model X SUV.  Equipped with everything including a pair of gull-wing back doors, the all-electric vehicle was a revelation for someone born and raised on the internal combustion engine.  Not only doesn’t the Tesla require a stop at the gas station, as I was soon to learn, it doesn’t really need a driver behind the wheel.  As my friend who owns the Model X explained as he engaged the Autopilot, “This baby pretty much drives itself.”  As we headed west on Beach Blvd. he took his hands off the wheel and the car quickly settled into the middle lane where it maintained a safe distance between it and the pickup truck ahead, even when the light turned red and traffic came to a stop.  When the light once again turned green and the traffic once again rolled onward, so did the Model X. 

“If I want to change lanes,” Gary told me as he activated the right turn signal, “the car will wait until it has enough space to do so without any driver intervention.”  Sure enough, as soon as traffic thinned enough to change lanes, the Model X obliged without any steering or throttle input from Gary. 
I asked Gary, “When will you simply be able to tell your car, ‘Take me to Adventure Landing and have it do all the driving?’”

“Sooner than you think,” Gary said with a smile.  “The best part is when that day occurs, Tesla will simply upgrade my Autopilot software, which means I won’t have to trade my Model X in for the latest model.

How soon will autonomous cars be a reality?

Image courtesy wikimedia
Aside from Tesla, most other auto manufacturers are either developing their own version of Autopilot or are bootstrapping their vehicles to a system called Mobileye that was used in Tesla vehicles until 2016 when Elon Musk decided to direct his company develop their own system.  Relying on a combination of cameras, Lidar and motion sensors, the self-driving functions of both systems provide a 360-degree view that’s unimpeded by rain, snow or fog.  Additionally, both Mobileye and Tesla’s Autopilot comes equipped with AI-enabled software that augments the sensors to enable their vehicles react to situations far faster then any human being.  Once tied to a GPS-based navigation system, it can even turn a self-driving car into the closest thing we have to an autonomous vehicle on the road today.  To equip a Tesla with Full Self-Driving (FSD) technology currently costs an extra $5,000.  Other auto manufacturers using Mobileye EyeQ 3 technology include GM, Nissan, Infinity, and Volvo.  

While currently only luxury models have access to what I call quasi-autonomous driving, it’s inevitable that within 5-10 years this kind of technology will trickle down to the typical family sedan.  I mean, it took only a decade or so before seat-belts and airbags made their way to the rest of the driving public.  With the skyrocketing cost of auto insurance, it’s inevitable that automotive technology that makes driving safer for the masses will soon become the norm as opposed to the exception.  The question is, what will this technology mean to the average driver?
What the HAL?

Image courtesy wikimedia
If you’ve been keeping a weather eye on autonomous vehicle development lately, you no doubt read about crashes involving Google’s self-driving vehicles and Uber, including at least one where a pedestrian was run over and killed.  Even Tesla had a well-publicized incident where its Model S crashed into a truck killing the Tesla driver.  What both Uber and Tesla spokespeople pointed out was in both the fatal crashes, the drivers who could have taken control of the vehicle failed to do so.  Even so called ‘autonomous vehicles’ are not currently designed to be driven without the supervision of their human drivers.  Still, when you look at the number of accidents that occur day in and day out on the highways and byways of our country, the fact is that cars equipped with some sort of automated defensive driving technology are far less likely to be involved in accidents that those without.

Driving is much like flying in that the cause of 99% of accidents can usually be put down to driver or pilot error.  Today’s vehicles are chock full of distractions on and off the dashboard that make it difficult to concentrate on driving.  Add to it that most drivers in the US have way to much going on inside their vehicles to be able to totally focused on driving, and conflicts on the road are inevitable.  Plus, most drivers don’t drive all that safely to begin with.  Most people follow too closely behind other vehicles.  Even if they aren’t busy phoning or texting while they drive, if there are passengers or children in the vehicle, it’s a foregone conclusion that the driver’s attention is anywhere other than the road.

Image courtesy of flickr
So, the good news is that once things like adaptive cruise control that adjusts your speed and distance to the car ahead and sensors that warn you of traffic you can’t see becomes standard on all vehicles, we’ll all be able to reap the benefits of safer motoring.  Since it rains frequently in Florida, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have sensors that can see through rain and fog when you can’t to keep you out of harm’s way?  Eventually when cars can communicate with one another, it will be nearly impossible to blindside another driver with an ill-advised lane change.  Of course, once vehicles get to that stage of sophistication it begs to ask, “When will cars drive humans from behind the wheel altogether?”

While many drivers live in mortal fear of the day that inevitability takes place, all I can say is “Have you seen the driving public lately?”  Every time I head out on the road, I expect to see distracted drivers, texting teenagers, elderly drivers creating hazards to navigation, not to mention a litany of Kamikaze drivers whose only goal seems to be to get in a wreck.  Instead of worrying about whether automation is going to take the wheel away from us, I think we need to consider the fact that if drivers get any more distracted by what’s going on inside their vehicles, there will come a time when it will be unsafe to venture out on the roads without wearing a goalie outfit.  Besides, don’t you have something better to do with your time than hang like a lemur from your steering wheel as you venture out to the mall? I know I sure do. 

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on your auto insurance, check out her website at

1 comment:

  1. Bring them on...I'm ready. Anything is better than having to deal with crazy drivers in Florida.


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