Commentary: Self-driving cars - rise of the machines?

The Rock Hill HeraldOctober 6, 2012 

If they give him any thought at all, younger Americans probably view California Gov. Jerry Brown as just another boring, aging politician. Their parents remember him as Governor Moonbeam, a retread from the flower-power, free-love days of the 1960s.

Imagine the latter group’s reaction upon reading in an AP story out of Mountain View, Calif., last week: “Gov. Jerry Brown rode to Google headquarters in a self-driving Toyota Prius before signing legislation Tuesday that will pave the way for driverless cars in California.”

Well, of course he did. Would we expect anything less from the chief executive of a state that routinely elects aging movie stars as governors and produces ex-mayors who interview empty chairs on national TV during the GOP convention?

Last week’s press conference wasn’t a publicity stunt, however. Brown was at Google headquarters to support a bill that would establish safety and performance regulations for testing and eventually operating driverless cars.

Google apparently has been operating a fleet of a dozen “autonomous vehicles” for several years and claims they have logged more than 300,000 miles on California highways without an accident.

Safety is the biggest selling point for taking the human factor out of driving, proponents say. Driver error is far and away the biggest cause of traffic accidents. In 2008, more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in this country.

Engineers say that because robot drivers have faster reaction, 360-degree perception and don’t get sleepy, distracted or drive drunk, they make better drivers than humans. If people turned the wheel over to a robot, they could talk on their cellphones or text without endangering themselves or others.

Advantages of autonomous drivers don’t stop there.

Because accidents would be fewer, safety features in cars could be reduced, allowing for lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Untold dollars could be saved in gasoline sales because robots could be programmed to stick to posted speed limits or, on busy highways, to match the flow of traffic. By reducing the space between vehicles, the carrying capacity or roads would increase, thereby requiring fewer new roads.

Experts say one obstacle is that current laws regulating driving don’t allow for robots. Who, for instance, would be responsible for damages if an autonomous vehicle runs a stop sign and collides with another car? One way to clarify such issues is to require that a licensed driver be present and that individual be able to take control of the vehicle at all times.

Although the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has expressed concern that states may be moving too quickly to approve self-driving cars, carmakers such as Audi, Toyota and Ford have been working on the technology for years.

Skeptics should know that California isn’t the first state to consider legalizing robot cars. Neighboring Nevada passed similar legislation in February. Once a couple more states jump on the robot-vehicle bandwagon, it’s just a matter of time before we’ll see driverless vans heading down Interstate 77 toward Hilton Head Island.

Several potentially thorny issues have not been raised in news stories but must be addressed before Americans can be expected to embrace driverless cars. For example:

• If you choose to take the High Occupancy Vehicle lane to work, can you count your robot driver as an occupant?

• When Californians send their robot driver down to the medicinal marijuana clinic, will it be allowed to sign for the prescription?

• Will driverless cars in Nevada be equipped with video poker or electronic slot machines?

• May South Carolinians program their robot drivers to ignore yellow caution lights? Otherwise, they’re gonna be rear-ended.

• Can robot drivers be programmed to flip off the guy in the pickup that just cut you off?

• Instead of the androgynous voice that comes with some GPS systems, could we have robots that sound like John Wayne and refer to the human backup as “Pilgrim”?

• If stopped by a cop in Arizona, will a robot driver be asked to prove it was manufactured in the U.S.?

• If you are married to a back-seat driver, can you program your robot driver to respond, “Yes, Dear”?

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