In 1982, the David Hasselhoff TV show Knight Rider broadcast the classic episode “Trust Doesn’t Rust” (nbc.com/classic-tv/knight-rider-original/video/trust-doesnt-rust/n3675). In it, thieves accidentally activate the predecessor of Michael Knight’s autonomous car, KITT. This car had not been programmed to preserve human life so it proceeds to go on a murderous rampage. As my friend Eric Gomez points out, “What does it mean to create a technology that might potentially outsmart us … or just kill us because it sees us as a threat or as inferior? Think of Frankenstein, who created a creature that he couldn’t control.”
Indeed, as John R. Quain writes in The New York Times, skepticism about giving up control of driving spans the generations. “Even engineers have some qualms,” he notes (“Skeptics of Self-Driving Cars Span Generations,” June 16, 2016; nytimes.com/2016/06/17/automobiles/wheels/skeptics-of-self-driving-cars-span-generations.html). To be fair, automated car tech still faces challenges, including dealing with weather, other unpredictable humans, or anything unexpected (“5 Things That Give Self-Driving Cars Headaches,” Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, June 5, 2016; nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/06/automobiles/autonomous-cars-problems.html).
Still, as they become common and the safety benefits be come clear, automated vehicles will seem less scary. Chris Kopp, transportation group director at infrastructure planning firm HNTB, put it this way: “Safety is what makes this technology inevitable. This is how we get close to zero traffic deaths” (“How Driverless Cars Will Take Over Roads, Hearts and Minds.” Jeff McMahon, Forbes, June 12, 2016; forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2016/06/12/how-driverless-cars-will-take-over-roads-hearts-and-minds).
Or will we?
Some drivers already driving vehicles with assistive tech nology act as if the vehicles were fully autonomous. This may have contributed to the death this May of a Tesla driver who slammed, at great speed, under a big rig that was crossing the highway in front of him. The trucker noted that the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the crash. “It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter-mile down the road,” he said (“Man Watching Movie Dies in Tesla on Autopilot,” Boston Herald staff, July 1, 2016; bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2016/07/man_watching_movie_dies_in_ tesla_on_autopilot). One should note that Tesla’s in-car screen was not at fault. It does not accept entertainment —unlike some other cars. Unsatisfied, the driver had installed a portable DVD player of his own. Is it the robots we should fear or our own growing reliance on them?
When Can I Get One?
“10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020,” declares the headline on Business Insider (“10 Million Self-Driving Cars Will Be on the Road by 2020,” John Greenough, June 15, 2016; businessinsider.com/report-10-million-self-driving-cars-will-be-on-the-road-by-2020-2015-5-6). However, the first ones might not be available to mainstream consumers. The biggest and first economic advantage might be for long distance trucking or military convoys. The U.S. Army began testing automated vehicles this past June. “Removing soldiers from convoy duties could reduce the potential for battlefield casualties as well as those incurred in accidents outside of battle zones,” writes Bob Sorokanich in Road & Track (“U.S. Army Begins Testing Tech to Enable Self-Driving Convoys This Summer,” March 15, 2016; roadandtrack.com/new-cars/car-technology/news/a28471/us-army-begins-testing-tech-to-enable-self-driving-convoys-this-summer).
So we consumers may have to wait a few years for totally automated vehicles. But at least we can take advantage of the partially automated features that can help keep us safe right now.
Cars Join the Internet of Things
Your car’s software needs to be updated. Can it be accomplished, as in my 12-year-old Prius, by inserting a DVD into the vehicle’s sound system? Not at all. In the new cars, software updates are wireless: OTA, or “Over the Air,” via “telematics.” “Like a smartphone, the car is quickly becoming a consumer electronic mobile device—the largest one,” writes Lucas Mearian in Computerworld (“Over-the-Air Software Coming Soon to Your Next Car,” Feb. 5, 2015; computerworld.com/article/2880150/over- the-air-software-coming-soon-to-your-next-car.html).
That’s convenient. Yet, along with having the car become part of the Internet of Things comes the possibility that it can be hacked. No wonder, legacy car makers are starting to take security seriously. And, as Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at the security firm F-Secure, told his audience at the SXSW conference, “The internet has brought us more good than bad. Overall, technology improves our lives and business, even with the risks. And I’ll be able to watch cat videos on YouTube while I’m ‘driving’”(“Your Next Car Will Be Hacked. Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Worth It?” Jemima Kiss, The Guardian, March 13, 2016; theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/13/autonomous-cars-self-driving-hack-mikko-hypponen-sxsw).