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Spare parts: Jane, stop this crazy thing!

By Ernie Copper

My go-to source for information on the future has been, and will continue to be, Hanna-Barbera’s animated series The Jetsons. The Jetsons got plenty of things right, predicting flat-screen TVs, a version of Skype and automation of the most simplistic daily routines. They also called the shot on push-button breakfast, moving sidewalks and hand-held video devices.

The one thing this cartoon, produced in the early ’60s and set in the future a mere 49 years from now in 2062, kind of fouled off was the idea of the flying car. The Jetsons and everyone in Orbit City routinely buzzed around in flying cars. Part car, part flying saucer and part Piper Cub, these bubble tops looked at least as plausible as Rosey the Robot and Henry Orbit’s remote-controlled mop. It was easy to envision myself in George’s place behind the joystick that controlled his aero car.

While you and I are thundering down the road in our loud, pipe-induced bliss, there are many things sneaking up behind us that will change our future. Some of them are already here. ABS brakes and traction control are common upgrades on today’s motorcycles, and both are proving that you and I may be the weak link when it comes to maintaining control of our bikes at the limits.

Just as soon as its lack of meaningful range is resolved, the electric bike will rocket quietly past you and me, as well, leaving us drowning in our own oversized carbon footprint. I can’t think of a better way to go.

But I can think of a worse way to go: at the hands of, or make that not at the hands of, an autonomous car. Autonomous, loosely translated, means driverless, and while I have encountered several cars controlled by drivers with not-so-pleasant results, I can’t even imagine the havoc that will be created when autonomous cars take to the street as more than an experiment, which, according to Motor Trend, could be as soon as the next five years.

Right now, you’re probably thinking. “Why is this guy reading Motor Trend to begin with?” Lest I lose complete credibility with you, I was at the waiting room in the dentist’s office and the cover was featuring the new Corvette. Inside was also an article titled “The 2013 Power List” and coming to rest at number 33 on that list was Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Prior to reading this article, I had nothing against Sergey. But according to the article, Sergey is pushing for autonomous cars on the road in as little as five years.

Think about it. The part owner of Google in the autonomous car business. Why? So you are finally “free” to text, surf and work during your commute; that’s why. That could mean huge revenue to Google and others considering the amount of time Americans spend in their cars each day. Greed, the American dream, is still alive, while the American biker now has to worry about autonomous cars running them off the road!

While freedom is at issue here, we dare not turn a blind eye toward the sure-to-follow liability issues that will come to the forefront the first time one of these driverless vehicles is “responsible” for killing a motorcyclist. Three states, Nevada, California and Florida, already have some legislation allowing driverless cars. When you crack the lid on this Pandora’s box, plenty of questions pop out. What about impaired “driving” an autonomous vehicle, underage “driving” and on and on? Once we accept the premise that the “driver” is not responsible for the actions of the vehicle, who is? Regardless of how foolproof autonomous vehicles are, they will fail sooner or later. Current estimates are that autonomous cars have logged 300,000 to 500,000 accident-free miles. That sounds like a lot of miles, but I wondered how many miles are driven in the U.S each year, so, ironically, I Googled it. First estimate was 2.5 trillion. The Federal Highway Administration estimates 3 trillion. That’s a long way from half a million—and a lot of room for error.

Sooner or later everything fails on some level and, when it does, someone will be to blame. The big question right now is, who? In the future we will need to establish that on local, state and federal levels. The legal issues may take longer to work out than the actual technology of the autonomous car does.

The future may already be here, and even George Jetson had the sense to steer his damn future car himself.

 

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