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Leave the Driving to It

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, October 12, 2012

Driverless cars are on the horizon, and we can all start feeling ancient now. The youngest among us will remember the days when we had to keep our hands on the steering wheel and foot near the brake. Joining "icebox" and "fire stable" will be such terms as "behind the wheel," "pedal to the metal" and "in the driver's seat."    

Hipsters yet to be born will laugh at worried talk of "blind spots" and complaints of "backseat drivers." Windshields with suction-cup marks from primitive GPS devices may become wall art, just as those old blue-glass Delco batteries now hold sunflowers.    

I can't wait. The notion of dropping into some soft leather seat, saying, "Take me to the movie theater" (if there still are movie theaters), then pouring a nice glass of cabernet is most appealing. There will be no such thing anymore as drunken drivers because there will be no drivers. Drunken passengers, sure.    

Radar will detect objects, including pedestrians and brick walls. Cameras will record lane lines, and infrared versions will see better at night than a raccoon. Some of the newer driverless models go 70 miles an hour.    

There will be fewer traffic jams because the computer-run cars will know not to smash into their neighbors. Most accidents are caused by human error, explains traffic expert Tom Vanderbilt in Wired magazine. The driverless car's computer "is better than human in every way."    

Driverless cars will reduce the need for new pavement. Did you know that vehicles take up only 5 percent of the road surface on even the most congested highways? "Hyperalert and algorithmically optimized" cars should be able to safely cruise bumper to bumper, according to Vanderbilt.    

I keep using the future tense, but actually, some driverless cars are already on the roads. A fleet of Google driverless cars now ply the byways of the San Francisco Bay area. They have signs on them saying "self-driving car," lest a shocked driver think he's encountered a vehicular headless horseman.    

California recently legalized driverless cars, following the lead of Nevada and Florida. Bear in mind that driverless cars were never officially banned -- for obvious reasons.    

A legal question for the 21st century: If your driverless car does get in an accident, whom is to blame, you or the software developer?    

A philosophical question: Are driverless cars computerized vehicles or computers on wheels? Clearly, Google believes in the latter. But the auto industry is hard at work making its case. Traditional cars are already highly computerized. Some advanced features, such as automatic parallel parking, involve driverless movement. Several major carmakers have research centers in Silicon Valley.   

So go forth, motorists: Write text messages till your thumbs turn blue. Gesticulate wildly as you argue on the phone. Play around with your 2,000 stations. Neck in the backseat -- or the front seat, for that matter. You are no longer in charge, which means the driving time is all yours.   

Ooooh. But what's going to happen to that time????? The utopian side says the hours our eyes were glued to the road will be spent in leisure or intellectual pursuits. The dystopian side says that the effort the technology saves us will create more time for work. Have smartphones freed up your day?    

The possibilities are endless. Children will take themselves to clarinet lessons. The elderly will no longer worry about losing their ability to drive. On a sour note, computer hackers will be able to commit crimes against passengers yet unimagined.    

But this part of our future is inevitable: Everyone will have a chauffer and leave the driving to it.    

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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