Verner: Behind the wheel, behind the times?

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2012

If you were told that researchers are on the verge of greatly reducing a public-health threat that kills more than 1 million people around the world each year, including 30,000-plus in the United States, where would your mind instinctively veer?
To an advance in cancer treatments? A breakthrough in reducing heart disease and stroke?
How about a cure for the common car?
You probably don’t think of the car or truck sitting in your garage as constituting a public health issue, except for the tailpipe emissions that contribute to smog and particulate pollution. But automobile accidents are a significant cause of preventable deaths in developed countries. In exchange for the convenience and economic benefits of living in a car-centric world, we tolerate — or simply ignore — tens of thousands of deaths each year, giving little mind to the carnage until it affects us personally. Even then, we tend to ponder the cruelties of individual fate rather than the brute fact of mass slaughter on our highways. Future generations will look back on this ghastly toll, the cost in economic loss as well as human life, and view it in much the same light as we now view pre-anesthesia amputations or therapeutic bleeding. Those poor, benighted souls of the 20th and early 21st centuries, clinging to their deadly steering wheels … whatever were they thinking?
That future is closer than you think.
Google is currently testing driverless cars in Nevada and California. These are not remote-controlled vehicles running around closed courses. They are specially modified production vehicles driving themselves autonomously on public highways — following specific routes, navigating congestion, waiting for a opening to merge with freeway traffic, parking themselves at the curb. They operate through an array of high-tech devices, some of which are already incorporated in cars on the highway now. These include Google’s satellite mapping system, radar and positioning sensors that tell the car where it is in relation to geographical coordinates, as well as to any objects in proximity.
While the car is driverless, however, it isn’t passengerless. During testing, the prototypes always carry humans who can override the autonomous system at any time. So far, they’ve logged more than 150,000 miles.
While Google is trying to get ahead of the curve, several automakers are bringing autonomous driving features online, using similar technology. A few examples:
• General Motors is developing self-driving technology for its Cadillac division. Dubbed “super cruise,” it will make the car capable of steering, braking and lane centering on its own. Cadillac already has a driver-assist capability on some new vehicles that can automatically stop the car if it detects an impending collision.
• Mercedes-Benz offers a “Distronic Plus” package that scans forward traffic and, if it senses an impending crash, initiates partial braking while sounding an alarm and pretensioning safety restraints (to reduce stress on the torso in the event of a collision). If the driver doesn’t respond, it fully deploys the brakes. (If the driver still doesn’t respond, presumably a holographic butler appears with smelling salts.)
• BMW and Volkswagen are also developing semi-autonomous systems that track traffic ahead as well as in adjoining lanes, automatically steering, braking and adjusting speed.
• Ford (which pitches its automated parallel parking option in commercials) and Audi are both developing a “traffic jam assist” program that will enable cars to automatically keep pace with traffic and maintain the proper lane. Production is probably about five years away.
The motive behind such advances is obvious: The primary cause of accidents is driver error. Along with reducing the severity of injuries through safety restraints, airbags and structural “crumple” zones, it’s now technically feasible to begin eliminating driver error. Antilock brakes, stability control, lane-departure and blind-spot warning systems are steps in that direction. Semi-autonomous cars will be the next phase, en route to the fully driverless vehicle.
As a lifelong gearhead who enjoys the tactile experience of controlling a car, I’ll confess to some misgivings about this. While the automobile is a utilitarian conveyance, it’s also a cultural symbol that embodies freedom, mobility and individualism. It’s hard to imagine Bruce Springsteen wailing an ode to a driverless car, for example, or Thelma and Louise putting the T-Bird on autopilot before they sail over the cliff. Some of us prefer a low-tech, hands-on approach. Plus, you don’t have to worry about computer viruses, hackers or a software glitch as you’re passing a semi on I-85.
But for an increasing number of people, I suspect, the daily commute holds little charm. The open road has become the perpetual construction zone. They’d just as soon let the car drive itself while they eat breakfast, text and talk via cellphone, finish shaving, make a few sales calls or perform any number of tasks that motorists do now while keeping half an eye on the road. With our vehicles rapidly evolving into rolling communication/entertainment centers, we’ve already voluntarily reduced the emphasis on our own individual autonomy behind the wheel.
However you may view it, this is the automotive future speeding over the horizon.
Smart cars are the ultimate antidote for dumb drivers.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.