Eric Peters: Automated cars = slow

By Eric Peters

How fast will automated cars go? Will it take you longer – or less – to get where you want to go? The answer to those questions can be discovered by taking a ride on a city bus or any other government-run public conveyance

They all operate at Least Common Denominator Speed – which will be the defining parameter for automated vehicles. For the same reason that a government-run train (DC’s Metro, for instance) accelerates very gradually, so as not to upset the fearful, the old, small children. When it stops it does so in the same manner. Gradually, with great caution for the equilibrium of the average. It will sometimes just sit. For no apparent reason.

And then, you wait.

Other examples include elevators and escalators. Or commercial aviation, for that matter.  They could all go much faster in terms of the technology but don’t because they must accommodate the average person.

The below-average person.    

Automated cars will be programmed similarly. This is not hypothetical. They already are.

If you’ve had a chance to drive a new car equipped with automated technology such as Emergency Automated Braking or Lane Keep Assist you will have had a taste of The Future of Transportation. The possibility that it might become necessary to brake becomes the actuality of braking, every time – because computers are programmedand don’t do nuance.

The sensors detect an object in the vehicle’s intended path – such as a car up ahead that appears to be stopped  but is actually in the process of turning off. Computers – being programmed, reactive things – cannot intuit that the driver isn’t stopped in the middle of the road and that car will be out of your vehicle’s intended path by the time you get there.

Hence, no need to stab the brakes.

You wouldn’t. The computer will   

These system do the same when they decide you’ve cut a pass too close. Or are trying to. It isn’t actually too close. It’s just too close for the embedded parameters that govern the system. Which – keep in mind – will be laid down according to the fiat of a programmer. Or more exactly, will be laid down according to the fiat of the same joy-sucking, initiative-stomping bureaucrats who currently posit absurdly low speed limits, prohibit perfectly safe U turns and rights-on-red.

Believe me. Hear me. I – in my role as a car journalist – have experienced this in multiple new cars saddled with bits and pieces of the all-controlling technology that is Our Future -unless we somehow put the kibosh on it.

Automated systems such as Emergency Automated Braking, Pedestrian Detection and Lane Keep Assist are programmed to over-react out of a super-abundance of Cloverian caution – not unlike your aging mother-in-law, who won’t even make a legal right on red unless there isn’t another car within a quarter-mile of hers and then only if pestered to make it . Who begins to slow down a quarter mile before she gets to her turn – and then practically stops in the middle of the road before actually making her turn.

Once all cars have this peremptorily programmed mother-in-law under the hood, the automated cars behind hers will also dutifully brake.

None would think of going around her – as you might, in your autonomous car – because automated cars don’t think and besides that would be illegal and the controlling intelligence is no longer yours but the embedded programming.

The automated car will not stray out of its lane, cross the double yellow to pass a herd of Lance Armstrong wannabees or come to a rolling stop at a vacant intersection, in order to avoid wasting time and fuel. All the foregoing would require situational judgment, the weighing of pros and cons – which the programming isn’t capable of exercising. If the automated car is confronted with a situation outside its parameters, it will simply stop. Like the automated Chevy Bolt GM rolled out in San Francisco last week. It encountered a double-parked taco truck, which flummoxed the automated know-it-all.

So it just parked itself.

The GM car still had a steering wheel and human-control could intervene. But what happens when the steering wheel and human control are taken out of the equation?

All automated cars will queue up at the same (slow) pace. None shall pass. Ever again.

The taco truck-bedazzled Bolt “never mov(ed) faster than 20 miles per hour . . . (and) reacted more conservatively than a human driver, for example slowing to a near-stop after sensing a bike approaching in the opposite lane.”

Punching the gas to blast past a road Clover could become as distant a memory as the catalytic converter test pipe.

Automation of cars will mean the end of ebb and flow. No room for the exercise of individual judgment. No going faster than the herd. No stepping out of the queue.

Once you’re in – you’re in. Like riding the Metro.

This idea that we’ll all be conveyed from A to B by a computerized Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is as preposterous as the idea of an efficient and speedy DMV. Everything the government does is necessarily one-size-fits all.

Being caged in an automated car will be like having to wait behind old people on escalators. The Automated cars of Our Future will have to function this way if only for liability reasons. You can’t hold the occupant of an automated car responsible for what the programming does. So the default program will be: Slow, overcautious, herd-like and – whenever a situation arises that requires a split second judgment call – it will be decided on hewing to the letter of the law, no matter how irrelevant to the actual situation; on the basis of risk-avoidance, no matter how remote or improbable.

The one comfort – if it is one – will be that you’ll be allowed to keep yourself perpetually distracted by watching videos on YouTube or gabbling on the phone.          

 

 

 

Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive and motorcycles at ericpetersautos.com. Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

 

 

 

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