There was a time when I considered myself smarter than a car. Now I’m not so sure.
My faith first began to slip when I tested a new Mercedes equipped with automatic headlights, a blind spot warning system and cruise control that slowed the car if traffic ahead got too close.
Unlike myself, the Mercedes maintained a perfect follow distance and never forgot to dim the headlights for oncoming traffic. I might miss a car hidden in my blind spot, but the Mercedes never did. And yet I could still feel superior to the car. It was only a machine, after all. I looked upon it as a mechanized butler that took care of administrative details so I could pay attention to the important things that demand human attention – like deciding where to go, what radio station to listen to and parallel parking.
Yes, parallel parking. If ever there were a task that separated man from machine, this is it. Surely no car could usurp the human driver when it comes to this consummate test of driving skill.
A few days ago, I tried a Ford Focus with auto-park. This was a car that cost less than $30,000. And it parked itself. The car located potential spots, measured them, and popped an alert when it found one that was big enough. All I had to do was stop, put the car in reverse and take my hands off the wheel, surrendering myself to the digital gods.
It worked well – all too well. Like many driving enthusiasts, I’m horrified by the way that the auto industry has been subverted by the desires of lazy and unskilled drivers – the manual transmission is gradually disappearing, cars are turning into rolling offices and over laden luxury is becoming the order of the day. (Do we really need seats with 18 electric motors in them so you can get a massage while you drive?)
Enthusiasts argue that smarter cars are making drivers worse. But I have come to realize that human superiority is one of the car world’s greatest conceits. Once upon a time, cars were stupid. Now they’re smarter than many drivers (like the one who backed out onto the highway in front of my wife and me last week). And yet we don’t believe that a machine can beat us. I can’t count the number of experienced drivers who have told me that they turn off their stability control systems because they think they can do a better job than a computer. I used to think I could, too. Not any more. The machines are getting better. And we aren’t.
Unlike computers, humans are fallible, slow and emotional. Computers don’t succumb to road rage. They don’t panic. And they’re fast. This hit home last year during some high-speed lapping sessions in a Porsche 911 and a BMW M3 at Mont Tremblant. Both cars were brilliantly quick and easy to control, even though it was raining. I danced through the corners, sliding and correcting like Ayrton Senna himself. Or so I thought.
In fact, I was getting a lot of help. Computers were interpreting everything that was happening, then applying thousands of imperceptible, yet vital, corrections. A touch of brake might be applied at one wheel only to mitigate an impending spin. The engine mounts would stiffen to prevent the weight of the motor from shifting to the outside of a turn. My throttle inputs might be gently countermanded so as not to create a sudden imbalance.
The computers were making me look good. And when I turned them off, I was Senna no more. I was a mere human being, slow and imperfect. Even the best drivers in the world are inferior to digital technology. Senna died in a crash back in 1994, but if he were alive today I think he’d be using as many digital systems as he could, because that’s what it takes to win. Senna’s reaction time was reputedly one tenth of a second. To a computer, that’s slow. And not even Ayrton Senna could control the brake on each of his car’s wheels individually like a computer can.
I thought about all this after trying the Focus’s eerily accurate auto park system. The machine did a better, more consistent job than a human being. I auto-parked the Focus again and again, trying to fool the computer, but the car ended up the exact same distance from the curb almost every time. Which made sense. Parking is a geometry problem, and computers are better at geometry than we are.
I did beat the system a couple of times – as when I parked in a spot that was shorter than the computer was programmed to accept, and when I parked next to a non-standard curb that fooled the optical sensors. But I didn’t gloat over my apparent victory. Programmers will deal with these issues soon enough, and that will be the end of my minor victories over the auto park system.
Because it eliminates a challenging driving task, auto-park will probably become common, then nearly universal, in the same way that automatic transmissions have. And software engineers will continue working toward the ultimate goal – eliminating the human driver altogether.
So will we be better or worse off when that happens? As much as it pains me to say it, I’m going to say better – or at least safer.
I’m a fanatic driver, and I love nothing better than a pure, stripped-down sports car and a twisting road to drive it on. But as drivers, human beings are deeply flawed. We miss red lights. We drive drunk. We lock the brakes. We fall asleep and drive into oncoming traffic.
And so the age of the driverless machine is coming, because humanity believes in improvement. I’m just glad I got to live in the imperfect age that came before the rule of the robo-car – the time where we were at the wheel, glorying in our own imperfection.
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