The recent crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at SFO may hold a lesson for automakers moving inexorably toward the autonomous car. As the New York Times (July 15, 2013) noted in its analysis of this accident, there is “a lingering argument about pilots relying too much on automation.”
Fully automated cars, on the other hand, may be a long way off. But what about cars that can accelerate to cruising speed, brake when confronting an obstacle, stay in their lane of travel, and even parallel park, all with minimal input from the driver? These features are available right now, and not just on high-priced luxury models.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Today, most of these “dynamic driver assistance systems” are quite new, and few drivers have become inured to their abilities. Given a few years, however, the situation could be quite different.
Once you own a car with a blind spot monitor, do you even have to look that closely before you change lanes…or do you just let the system warn you when there’s a vehicle alongside? If an adaptive cruise control system uses radar and cameras to scan the road ahead, either braking when confronting a slow-moving car or accelerating back up to speed when the road is clear, do you really have to pay close attention to the road? Given the “freedom” of this system, why not take a moment to text someone? (Of course that’s a satirical statement!)
Technology Will Save You
To be fair, every single automaker that offers these systems has literally page upon page of warnings and cautions in their owner’s manuals about how to use and not abuse these features. But what about human nature? If a machine seems to do a good job for us, why do we have to continue to do it?
Skills We’ll Lose
With my handy crystal ball in front of me, here are my predictions on driving skills the general public will begin to lose in the near future:
1. The ability to parallel park – let the parking assist system do it for you.
2. The ability to adjust exterior mirrors to prevent blind spots – why bother with mirrors at all if the blind spot monitor can “see” for you.
3. The ability to stay between the dotted lines on a highway – the camera/radar system will steer for you.
4. The ability to know when to use and when not to use cruise control – if adaptive cruise control works at any speed, might as well leave it on.
5. The ability to bring a car to a stop in the shortest possible distance – let ABS, brake assist and emergency brake-force distribution handle the job
You could easily argue that few people are good at parallel parking, very few people know how to adjust their mirrors, distracted drivers will always cross the dotted line, and simply, why not let semi-autonomous systems deal with difficult driving tasks? No one is going to step into a time machine and be required to manhandle a Marmon Wasp around the Indy 500, so let technology relieve us of the arduous task of driving.
The Slippery Slope
To me, it’s a slippery slope. I can appreciate ABS brakes and automatic headlights, but I really don’t want a car that tries to keep me centered in my lane. I want to be able to see a bicyclist on the side of the road and ease to the left to give him as much space as I deem safe while minimizing my time in the opposing lane. I want to be aware enough of the driving conditions to know when I should turn off the cruise control. I want to be able to drive, not “pilot,” my car.
A Matter of Control
I guess it boils down to this: I want control of my car. Will I make mistakes? Yes, we all do. But they won’t be mistakes caused by over-reliance on technology.