When I first heard about Google's robot car, I thought of it as the invention of Satan – who wanted a killjoy machine that drove by itself? As I saw it, the software geeks were trying to kill off one of the greatest pleasures in the history of the world – driving.
But now I'm wondering if the geeks have it right after all.
Recent events have brought the benefits of autonomous machines into sharp focus. Would a computer-controlled train have attempted to take an 80 km/h curve at 190? (Like a Spanish engineer apparently did, killing 79 people.) Would the auto-land system on a Boeing jetliner let it get low and slow, then hit the seawall on the approach to the San Francisco airport? (As the human pilots of an Asiana Airlines flight allegedly did, killing three passengers and destroying the plane.)
The answer is no. And by the same token, I am confident that the Google car would not have committed the deadly stunts and errors that I have witnessed on the road.
A couple of days ago, a woman nearly took out our family Honda when she suddenly cut across three lanes of traffic after realizing she'd missed the airport exit. The next day, I witnessed a mustached guy in a pickup truck weaving through congested freeway traffic at what looked to be 150 km/h or more.
Our roads are a circus of human error. I once watched a family pull on to the left shoulder of the busiest highway in Canada to unload their young kids for a bathroom break as traffic blasted past just a meter or two away. In my twenties, I was nearly killed by a Buick that came around a curve in the Rockies on the wrong side of the road at night with its headlights off.
After a lifetime of driving, repairing and studying automobiles, I have come to an unavoidable conclusion – we are the weakest link in a car. As car components go, human beings are deeply substandard – we have imperfect perception, we are ruled by emotion, and we vary wildly in quality. (On the top end of the scale, you have superstars like Formula One's Fernando Alonso; while on the lower end, you find drivers like the woman my family encountered out by the airport last week.)
But even the most skilled humans make mistakes behind the wheel. Formula One champion Mike Hawthorn was killed in his Jaguar sedan when he went into a curve too fast on a road in England (it was rumoured that he was racing a friend.) My friend Rick Bye, a former pro racer, almost died after rear-ending stopped traffic on a U.S. highway while towing a heavily-loaded trailer.
Despite our inadequacies, driving is becoming steadily safer. In the early 1920s, there were more than 20 fatalities for every 100 million miles travelled by car in North America. By 2011, the rate had fallen to just over one fatality for every 100 million miles travelled.
Numerous factors have contributed to this stellar improvement. Shoulder belts and airbags are now standard features. So are crush zones that absorb the energy of a crash. Gone are the days of metal dash panels that smote unrestrained passengers like battering rams. So are the solid steering columns that turned into giant entomologist's pins in a frontal collision, impaling the luckless driver.
Some of the biggest safety gains come from systems that presage the robot car – like antilock brakes and stability control systems. Although driving enthusiasts initially dismissed these systems as unnecessary intrusions, they are now standard equipment, offering capabilities that not even the most skilled human driver can match.
A few weeks ago, I put my car's systems to the test at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (formerly known as Mosport). After lapping the track at speed with stability control turned on, I decided to see it what would be like to go old school. I pressed the button that defeats the system – you have to hold it down for a while, because the car wants to make sure that this is what you want. Like a nuclear weapons launch, turning off a stability control system is serious business.
With the system disarmed, my Lotus became a much more demanding machine. As I arced through CTMP's high-speed corners, I realized that I was balanced on a razor's edge, and that the least error could pitch me into a spin. (After years of high-performance driving with stability control, it's easy to forget how helpful these systems really are.)
I turned the system back on, then headed over to the skid pad (a huge parking lot where you can experiment.) On the skid pad, the brilliance of the stability control system was all too apparent. When I tried throwing the car out of control by accelerating as hard as I could through a sharp-radius corner, the Lotus gently reduced the throttle and applied a touch of brake to opposite corners of the car to keep it from spinning. Fantastic.
I was in the hands of the digital gods. It was not always this way. I once lost my 1965 Volvo on a sweeping turn in the Fraser Valley – after going into the corner too fast and abruptly chopping the throttle (which unloaded the rear wheels), I went into a long, lurid slide – only good luck kept me from running into a rock or a tree. And I remembered a horrific scene I witnessed back in the early 1980s, when an elderly woman driving in front of me on the highway to Halifax swerved, overcorrected, and shot off a 10-metre embankment. She died in front of me. Had her car been equipped with stability control, the swerve would have been a non-event.
Digital transportation technology is an unstoppable force. It will change driving in the same way that the Internet has remapped the world at large. Robot cars will end car crashes, improve traffic flow, and reduce energy consumption. I'm hoping get a ride in the Google robot car soon. I don't expect it to be a thrill, at least in the accepted sense. But it will be a glimpse into the future – a place where driving will be a lot safer and more efficient than could have imagined – and probably a lot less fun, too.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
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