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Blue Dog Diaries: Home, HAL

By Terry Roorda

The development and extensive testing of the so-called “driverless car” is moving along at a blistering pace with the ultimate objective of eliminating the human element from motorized transportation. The charge is being led by Google—the de facto Internet monopoly that famously took the phrase “Don’t be evil” as their company credo, but is emerging as an alarmingly sneaky and insidious cabal of greedheads—and the drive towards a driverless future has become an unstoppable juggernaut. Before most of the public was even aware of the program, Google had racked up over a half-million miles of driverless travel in California. And it’s already specifically legal here, Nevada and Oregon, and tacitly legal in many other states simply because they neglected to include in their motor vehicle regulations any requirement that an automobile actually have a human being in it. You can probably understand the oversight.

Using a sophisticated array of computers informed by laser-radar devices called Lidars, these vehicles survey their surroundings, get their navigation from GPS satellites and the Internet, and allegedly react to hazards and changing traffic conditions much faster and more effectively than their human counterparts. As a result, they’re pretty much utterly autonomous, and advantages touted by the designers include providing safe mobility for the disabled, the aged, the narcoleptic, the shit-faced and the cute little cockapoo sitting in the driver’s seat on a YouTube video. There are potential downsides, of course, but I needn’t list them here since you’ve no doubt thought of a few dozen yourself just in the time it’s taken you to read the foregoing—never mind that a Google spokesman stated, “We are introducing autonomous vehicle technology to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient.” The company projects that driverless cars will hit the showroom in about five years, and powerful institutional entities, particularly the insurance industry, rub their hands in anticipation of a fully autonomous transportation future.

Personally—and surprisingly, perhaps—I tentatively welcome this innovation in theory—or at least the less I Robot parts of it—because here’s the thing: There’s nothing new about driverless cars. We’ve been dealing with down-level versions of the phenomenon for a number of years now, ever since the inception of the cell phone, and the facile industry excuse that they’re safe for use while driving provided you don’t have to hold it in your hand. The canard that the problem was one of manual dexterity—even though one-armed motorists are legally licensed in California—was trumpeted in an effort to overshadow the real safety problem, that of driver cognitive distraction. It succeeded. Hands-free devices are legal, and they’ve proven to be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Since then the debate over manual versus mental preoccupation has been marginalized and automobile manufacturers have frantically tried to outdo one another in the techno-hip sweepstakes with the addition of touch-screen dashes and devices that replace simple knobs and dials with bewildering menus of options and settings that have now been demonstrated to be even more distracting than the primitive analog systems they replaced. The hard truth is that every second your attention is not focused on the job at hand, i.e. safe motoring, you’re literally in a driverless car.

And it’s getting worse. Extrapolating from the demonstrably erroneous notion that hands-free device usage is perfectly safe, the Next Big Thing is the voice-to-text translation system called Siri, which is finding its way onto autos from the pricy BMW 7-series to the lowly Chevy Sonic, with a host of others in the queue.

We know now that texting while driving is practically suicidal, so it would appear reasonable to suspect that the Siri approach is an elegant solution to a frightening problem. It’s the next cool-kid gizmo being pushed by the automakers, which makes it all the more troubling that a study recently conducted by the University of Utah discovered through exhaustive testing that it’s actually more of a distraction than working your thumbs on your smartphone, or even talking on a hand-free cell phone. They’re at a loss to explain the results, speculating that it has to do with how the human mind fashions and transmits speech versus the written word. They just plain don’t know—but that’s not slowing down the transition.

And that brings us back to Google and another of their creepy technologies—the Google Glass—a spy device right out of a Bond flick that permits a vehicle operator to surf the web and schmooze on Facebook—or whatever the hot, new social media is these days (I can’t keep up with it)—right there in their immediate field of vision. Considering that over a third of all Internet downloads involve pornography, what could possibly go wrong? (At least one state, West Virginia, is moving to outlaw the use of the Glass while driving, despite the fact that they’re not yet available to the general public.)

Fortunately, modern automobiles are all loaded up with safety features to greatly enhance collision survivability of the occupants, so even if you get distracted and cause a collision, it’s probably no big deal. You can even finish watching the YouTube video of the dog behind the wheel while trading insurance information. The same can’t be said of pedestrians, bicyclists and especially the motorcyclists sharing the road at highway speeds with millisecond reaction windows, and no more protection than the clothes they’re wearing. Google is already promoting the Glass as a driving aid, stating, “We actually believe there is tremendous potential to improve safety on our roads and reduce accidents.” That’s their opinion. Mine is that a bloodbath is shaping up out there on the highway, and a driverless future could all too easily segue into a riderless future as a result.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

One comment

  1. What? Sorry, I didn’t get that, Terry! What about techno distraction? I’m too distracted by the Mount Rushmore Boom Box video screen on the new 2014 water cooled Harley-David-San touring bikes.

    [Reply]

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