Driving on autopilot

Driving on autopilot

Google’s automated car catches fire

By Jennifer Hadley 06/20/2013

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G  oogle’s driverless car is beginning to gain quite a bit of steam. In fact, its momentum powered it all the way to Washington, DC, where, on May 15, a US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing was held specifically to address the policy implications of self-driving vehicles.
 
To my surprise, those who seemed more optimistic and energized by the future of driverless cars were Republicans. Indeed, it was the right wing that seemed to be championing progress, whereas Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) seemed less enthusiastic.
 
Questions from Rockefeller included: “As our cars become more computerized and electronics-based, can the industry make sure they are reliable and prevent failures?” he asked. Continuing along that line, Rockefeller further queried, “And as our cars become more connected — to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure — are they at risk of catastrophic cyber-attacks? In other words, can some 14-year-old in Indonesia figure out how to do this and just shut your car down … because everything is now wired up?”
 
I admit that these are valid questions. And I certainly don’t want someone hacking into my automated car and turning it off while I’m engaging in vital tasks, such as perusing an Us Weekly while I’m being chauffeured, via technology, to my nail appointment. However, I will gladly overlook that potential threat, due to the fact that I’m still likely to be safer in a car when I’m not behind the wheel.
 
At the hearing, Automobile Manufactures President Mitch Bainwol explained that, “Given that more than 90 percent of crashes result from human mistakes, the combination of emerging driver-assist features, connectivity and ultimately autonomous vehicles offer the promise of safer mobility.” 
 
That’s right, folks. From distracted (texting, phone calls, in-car disturbances by passengers) and impaired driving (DUI) to driving while drowsy and road rage, we are to blame for crashing our cars. By removing the culprit (drivers), we become immediately safer on the road. Computers don’t drink. They don’t talk on the phone. They don’t try to read their email in a traffic snarl. They don’t get tired. And, they don’t get angry at other drivers. Are you kidding? Where can I buy everyone in Los Angeles one of these cars?  
 
Moreover, as was pointed out by the top-ranking Republican on the Senate’s Transportation Committee, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), “These technologies, which include driver-assistance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous self-drive cars, offer the promise of many future benefits. In addition, these technologies, many of which are being developed domestically, represent innovations that will help to drive the tech and manufacturing sectors and benefit our economy.”
 
But for Thune, it’s not just about safety and creating jobs. He referenced the huge advantages driverless cars would offer to people with disabilities. “Anyone who has seen the YouTube video of Steve Mahan, a blind man using Google’s self-driving car to perform his daily errands around the suburbs of Morgan Hill, Calif., knows how potentially life-changing these technologies may be,” Thune said.
 
Suffice to say, I’m all for driverless cars, and in my opinion they can’t get here quickly enough. I am equally encouraged that the US Department of Transportation is embarking on research that will hopefully expedite the process of getting self-driving cars on the road, en masse.  
 
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement, “Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term, while the recommendations to the states help them better oversee self-driving vehicle development, which holds promising long-term safety benefits.”  The first phase of the DOT’s research is estimated to be completed within four years.
 
I know it’s early to be this excited. And don’t get me wrong; I love driving, only on the open road, not the Foothill (210) Freeway at rush hour.

Contact Jennifer Hadley at jmhadley624@yahoo.com. 

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