Computers are taking the wheel

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2011

Perhaps because so many technical journals flow across my desk, I missed this particular automotive milestone. All summer, two driverless cars have been tooling about Berlin, guided by a sophisticated ó as opposed to, say, a Tandy TRS80 ó computer linked to a precision satellite navigation system, cameras and laser scanners on the roof and the bumpers.
The navigation system is in the trunk, which worries drivers like me with hard-earned paranoia. One bump from the rear at a stoplight, the GPS goes nuts, and you find yourself helplessly headed for Peru until you run out of gas on a particularly dangerous stretch of the Mexican border.
No worries, though. Your driverless car automatically dials the Matamoros police and summons help, in German. The police, assuming they can find a translator, may be less than motivated when they learn they are effectively talking to a robot. Thus, a false identity like Enrique Iglesias might prove helpful, until a bunch of angry Mexican cops take a ball peen hammer to the car.
The engineers behind the German prototypes ó $551,000 Volkswagen Passats ó say the driverless cars recognize other moving cars, pedestrians and such common motoring hazards as buildings and trees. It can even see, explained on engineer, ěif the traffic lights ahead are red or green and react accordingly.î Weíd be pretty happy if they could recognize yellow lights too because no one in this country can.
Much to my disappointment, the description ědriverlessî turns out not to be quite accurate. The Berlin police allowed the tests of cars, according to the Associated Press, ěunder the condition that a safety driver sits behind the steering wheel, even if he doesnít touch anything ó not the steering wheel, gas pedals or brakes.î
This is a little bit too much like having your mother teach you how to drive, stabbing desperately at an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side, edging ever closer to the middle of the seat to be poised to grab the wheel and sucking in her breath at random, distracting intervals.
The Volkswagen researchers could have saved themselves some time by studying the traffic in any major American city. There, the cars are not truly driverless; theyíre just not driven because the person behind the wheel is texting, catching up on office work on his laptop, eating or arguing with talk radio.
The cars have been allowed to run around unchaperoned on automotive test tracks but any consumer use is 30 to 40 years away. The head of the Free Universityís artificial intelligence group said, ěThis kind of technology is the future of mobility.î How is it mobility if the car is going somewhere and youíre not?
It may be able to drive itself, better and more safely than you, but, at bottom, it is still a car. You canít send it to gatherings youíd rather not attend: ěBill couldnít be here but he sent his Volkswagen. What a thoughtful guy. And, look, thereís a fruit basket in the back seat.î
The engineers say the car will one day respond to remote control commands, meaning you can tell it to go park itself and when itís time to leave summon the car by iPad or iPhone. This could mean some hard feelings with valet parkers but all progress comes with a price, slashed tires maybe.

McFeatters writes columns and editorials for Scripps Howard News Service.