Automotive Freedom: A Counterpoint

Automotive freedom?

My esteemed colleague (and new RFD writer) David Lange has fully embraced our autonomous overlords. And he makes some good points. The proliferation of autonomous cars will provide freedom in some areas while removing it in others. The Autonomotive Singularity is coming, like it or not. But I’ll give you my steering wheel when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

The Human Factor

Michael Knight asleep at the wheel of his autonomous car

Sure, there are some good points. Nobody likes sitting in traffic (me especially), so if the car takes over you can read a book or surf Facebook instead. That’s what I used to do when I took the commuter rail into Boston instead of fighting traffic. You could get a little extra sleep on the way to work, like Michael Knight is doing here. If you have a few too many at the bar, you could simply say “KITT, take over,” and have the car take you home. Or maybe the car would detect that you’re not fit to drive and take over by itself. Either way, drunk driving would be come a thing of the past, which helps everyone. So would providing the mobility that most of us enjoy to those of us physically incapable of driving ourselves.

But the transition, that in-between stage, from our current human piloted cars to a world full of autonomous cars seriously concerns me. If every car on the road is autonomous and actively communicating with each other, everyone knows what everyone else is going to do and will work together to make it happen. It will be completely predictable – the opposite of today’s human driven cars. We all complain about bad drivers. They’re bad because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do – going when the light turns green, or moving out of the left lane when they’re doing 50 in a 65, or even basic tasks like staying in their own lane. The chaotic human factor adds an enormous layer of complexity to what autonomous cars will have to deal with when mingling with humans. They’ll need to be reactive, instead of proactive as they can be with their robot counterparts.

Of course, all is not doom and gloom. Far from it. A Tesla Model S recently crossed the US in record time on autopilot 96% of the way. It had to deal with highways full of human drivers the entire way, and didn’t crash and explode in a fireball of autonomous glory, shiny and chrome. It would have if Alex Roy hadn’t taken the wheel and corrected when the car occasionally went astray, but that was at 90mph autonomous travel on what Tesla considers beta software. Roy was pushing the limits in order to find them, and is adamant that these were not faults with the car. Despite that, Elon Musk has implied that these issues will be addressed in a future update. So it seems that autonomous cars can share the road with human drivers, despite, like Spock, finding their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant. Especially when they play patty-cake instead of driving.

Autonomous cars are vulnerable to snow and ice
Photo credit: Driving

But even a fully autonomous car with all the programming it needs to handle chaotic human drivers is vulnerable to human error. People who live in the snow belt are already notorious for not clearing snow and ice off their cars before they drive. They’ll leave windows partially obscured, despite it being unsafe and illegal to do so. If they can’t be bothered to clear their own line of sight, they definitely won’t clear the numerous sensors that an autonomous car uses to “see.” Jason Torchinsky spelled out exactly what needs to be cleared, and it includes many places that most drivers don’t think about or even bother to clear now. Even I have to admit forgetting to clear my rear view camera until I shift into reverse and see practically nothing useful on the screen. As a human, I have the option of using my eyes, the back window, and mirrors to compensate, but computers don’t have that luxury. Without their sensors, they’re as blind as the person who only scrapes a tiny piece of their windshield directly in front of them, and as prone to crashes as well.

From Tool To Toy

Horse and car
Photo credit: Ford

In the early 20th century cars replaced horses for everyday transportation tasks. Today, horses are more of a hobby, or a pet, than the tool they once were. When the autonomous car explosion happens, the Ford Mustang will go the way of its namesake, as well as the other human operated cars. The general driving public will enjoy the convenience of autonomous cars, but auto enthusiasts will go on playing with them as toys.

Currently only 4-6% of new cars in the US, depending who you ask, are purchased with manual transmissions. More and more people see their cars as point A to B appliances rather than an experience. The major point in the manual’s favor, superior fuel economy, is no longer true. Most modern automatics have more gears than manuals, and are programmed to provide better fuel economy than most humans can. I see a similar trend happening when the entire car becomes automated and able to do the job better than people. A small but vocal minority will still scream for a manual option, as they do today, except they’ll be screaming for the option to drive the entire car themselves, let alone shift their own gears.

And as today, manufacturers will provide them in limited numbers. Older, manually operated cars will drastically increase in value as they become more rare, making it difficult for the enthusiast on a budget to afford to own or maintain one. So the parallel with the horse will continue, with manually operated cars becoming playthings of the rich, or at least the moderately affluent. It will cost a lot more to be an active auto enthusiast. Then there’s the additional problem of limited parts availability, or even getting gas if cars all go electric.

The Law

Demolition Man Olds 442
Photo credit:

In Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock steal a 1970 Olds 442 from a museum and chase down a dangerous criminal that the pacifist police of the utopian City of San Angeles can’t handle. Will non-autonomous cars be relegated to collections and museums in the future? Will they be banned from the roads altogether? There are plenty of compelling reasons to do so. As I mentioned, it’s much easier and more efficient to control an area’s traffic flow if every car communicates with every other car, knows what they’re doing, and works together effectively – the complete opposite of what currently happens on Route 128 outside Boston.

Despite the general public’s willingness to let the car do the driving, I think – or at least hope – that the ability to take manual control will always remain. Even if people do leave 96% of their driving to the computer, as Alex Roy and his team did on their cross country trip, there will always be unique situations that the computer won’t know how to deal with, and a human will have to do it. It may be as simple as getting out of a partially blocked parking space. The sensors say there isn’t enough room, but the driver knows that if they just go this way, then that way, they can squeak out of there anyway. Even the autonomous cars in Demolition Man had the option of manual control.

But what if I’m wrong? In that case the only way to enjoy the experience of driving yourself is to take it to the track, which, again, leads to a great deal of additional expense. Either you store your car at home and tow it to the track behind your autonomous tow vehicle, or you store it at the track for an exorbitant fee – again, like a horse. Except that it’s still legal to ride a horse on the road. To carve the canyons or bomb the back roads, you may have to resort to a motorcycle. In which case I’d expect a proliferation of vehicles like the Polaris Slingshot, KTM X-Bow, and the Morgan Three-Wheeler – vehicles that drive similarly to a stripped down car, but that are legally classified as motorcycles due to having fewer than four wheels. They’d be exempt from any laws requiring cars to be autonomous because technically they’re not cars.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope that those who want to keep driving can keep driving, and those who want their cars to drive themselves can have that, too. I have no wish to deprive people who aren’t interested or able to drive of their freedom. But don’t tell me that my manually controlled sports car is no longer welcome. To misquote the Ballad of Serenity, “You can’t take the road from me.”



1 comment
  1. Nice counterpoint, Justin. My hope is your hope, and honestly, I can’t imagine that we’ll lose the right to drive our own analog cars in our lifetime. The impetus for my article was really about keeping the freedom we gain with an automobile after we lose the physical or mental ability to operate one safely (as my dad will be experiencing before too much longer).

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