Self driving cars? No thanks.

I’d heard rumors about this, but hadn’t paid too much attention to it previously. It seems that the idea of “self driving cars” – made more famous by Google – is picking up steam and may be commonplace in little more than a decade.

The consensus among auto industry technologists, gathered in Detroit this week for Society of Automobile Engineers World Congress, is that by the middle of this decade, cars that can largely pilot themselves through traffic jams will be offered for sale. By 2020, cars capable of taking over most of the work of high speed driving could debut, and by 2025, fully autonomous vehicles might hit the streets in meaningful numbers…

[A]uto makers – and safety regulators in the U.S. and Europe – say they’re serious about pushing more autonomous braking and steering systems into cars and trucks, for one overriding reason: Most humans are depressingly bad drivers.

Really? Did none of you people watch Will Smith’s seminal work on the subject, I Robot? As soon as those cars figure out what a bunch of defective, inferior rejects we all are they’ll be running down pedestrians and flinging themselves into walls at maximum speed in no time. Still, for some reason, Dr. James Joyner seems willing to kneel down before our new automotive overlords.

It’ll be a while before this trickles down. While I’d be willing to pay some reasonable surcharge for this technology, I doubt I’ll ever buy a brand new car again. I’ve only done it for myself twice and not since 2001. (My late wife, on the other hand, insisted on having all the latest gadgets, so we bought two brand new vehicles for her.) Still, it tends to take a decade or so for the gee-whiz gear to migrate from an upcharge on a BMW to standard on a Kia.

Regardless, once these technologies are perfected, there’s going to be a heavy impetus to make them mandatory. Once robo-cars become standard, it’s going to be difficult to justify letting humans drive themselves in traffic.

I have an immediate and visceral response to this prospect and it’s completely negative. (And it has nothing to do with the issues others are already having with the Google car ruining their lives.) I probably inherited it from my father. Our younger readers probably don’t remember this, but there was a time when power steering and power brakes were newfangled, optional features on cars. My dad hated them, and resisted getting a car with either for some time.

I think it’s something to do with the basics of human nature and the desire to keep direct control of our fate as much as possible. Dad liked the idea of a pedal you pushed that directly moved a linkage which applied pressure to the breaks. He liked turning a wheel which was directly, mechanically connected to the axle. The idea that some higher tech gizmo was standing between him and the mechanism – a gizmo which could fail at any time and leave him without control of the vehicle – was disconcerting. I tended to agree, though I gave up and adopted them quickly enough.

But a robot car that essentially does all of the driving and makes all of the decisions in quickly evolving, potentially life and death situations? When you combine that with Joyner’s prediction that the government would steadily move to mandate this technology because we simply can’t be trusted with the responsibility, I get a screaming case of the heebie jeebies. No thanks, Google. You and Skynet can take your fiendish plots elsewhere.

EDIT: (Jazz) Yes, I’m leaving “breaks” in just to remind me that I’m far from perfect. Thanks.

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