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Self-driving cars: have we truly thought this through?

"We want to believe that every time we start our car we are embarking on an enchanted expedition filled with the wonderful treasure that is automotive transit. We know this is a lie, yet we believe it anyways." – Jalopnik

"… self-driving cars, long a staple of science fiction movies, are step by step becoming science fact." – Financial Times

"Mercedes-Benz announced Monday that it had successfully driven an autonomous S-Class sedan 62 miles on German city streets." – Los Angeles Times

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About 25 years ago, I used to rent RVs on occasion for a race team I ran. There was an urban myth – presumably – circulating that a rental driver in Quebec had set his rig on cruise control, and then headed to the back galley to make a sandwich. The error and the resulting ditch roll might have been fiction, but the image was enough to remind you every time you set the cruise.

Are we there yet? It appears we're close. Most manufacturers have been developing and perfecting the technology for years. Most of it debuts in the advanced safety systems – stability control, lane departure warning, brake assist, navigation systems – and is sold as such. Safety. Traffic fatality rates are going down steadily as cars save careless or distracted (or, be honest, plain bad) drivers from themselves or others.

Safety has been trumpeted as the main selling feature, but fuel efficiency and traffic congestion have entered the discussion. If we remove the human factor from behind the wheel, vehicles could perform without that fly in the ointment: human nature.

There is a boatload of wrinkles, as Mercedes-Benz noted in its German trial. Everybody has to be invited to the same party for it to work; cars that are self-driving would be most effective if they're sharing the road with other self-driving vehicles. Computers communicating with computers are one thing, and the test car didn't know how to interpret a person waving it ahead. Engineers noted that the car couldn't adapt for humans being human; a pedestrian signalling the car left it flustered (well, computer-flustered), as it hadn't been programmed for "politeness."

A few years back, we started to see co-operation between traffic laws and cars. Many vehicles now know what the speed limit is on any given road, and remind you – constantly – if you edge over it. We're also seeing more models with preventive braking that slows the car if the driver fails to. It's usually called Brake Assist, though in some cases, it's more like Brake Annoy. There's the rub: If you're an attentive driver who is fully engaged, you feel nannyed to death. But if you're sharing the road with those who are more distracted or less experienced, those same systems can save both of you. Tough to argue.

Picturing being able to go out to have a few pints and then letting your car drive you home? Don't count on it. Articles and discussions end with the fact that a driver will still have to be able to ultimately be in control of her self-driving car; an override system will always default to the driver. A lot of us enjoy driving and take it seriously. The upshot is those who need the protection the most will be the least able to cope if something goes amiss.

I've been overhearing recent teenage conversations about the fact that cars can now parallel park, so that dreaded part of the licensing test will soon evaporate. It's not unlike the when-will-I-ever-use-algebra ploy I used in high school. The biggest problem? It's bad enough when we have drivers on the road whose abilities have rusted or devolved into bad-habited versions of the original skills; will we now face having drivers who never knew them to begin with?

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Tim Danter, owner of DriveWise Oakville and an instructor on Canada's Worst Driver, is already facing degrees of this question in the classroom.

"We've seen it with math skills. Previous generations learned mental math by rote, but we learned it," says Danter. "Now? It's all a calculator or a computer, and the basics are gone."

He's right. Have you ever had a store clerk try to make change without a computer readout?

Danter continues: "The biggest issue is that too much technology promotes distraction, it doesn't combat it. We're seeing lax driving skills."

The inherent problem with a less engaged – or less skilled – driver is in the fallibility of the machine. Canadian winters are already kicking snow and ice over cameras and sensors. All these systems are electronics. Ever had your computer crash? Your cellphone freeze up? If your car does a version of this, it can be deadly, not to mention expensive. If the car next to you does it, maybe more so.

For now? Forget about heading back to make that sandwich.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More

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