Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

"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

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

lorraineonline.ca

Please send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies