Autonomously yours

I am not a luddite, really I'm not. But I have to wonder if "autonomous vehicles" are ready for prime time. It seems like at least once a week there is a report of an autonomous vehicle doing something stupid or dangerous. 

I have to admit that I have not driven a fully autonomous vehicle; no one has offered me one to test. I have driven a fair number of vehicles that have various stages of autonomy, mostly self-braking as part of a smart cruise control system, and/or lane keeping assist. 

The latest full-autonomous (no human in the vehicle) snafu I read about involved five self-driving cars that blocked an intersection in San Francisco. The company that owns the fleet blamed dense fog, allegedly the cars could not see through the fog so they just stopped where they were. You can read the article (maybe, there is a paywall) here ( Here is a photo of the snafu -

This doesn't look like dense fog to me. I've driven in dense fog, fog so dense you cannot see the front of your own car. In the photo I can see four cars in a line - not dense.

But even if it was really pea soup fog why couldn't the cars see? Are they using line of site cameras, radar, or lidar? Allegedly cars with self-braking can see obstacles better than a human, that is one of the selling points. If they rely on cameras maybe they can see a bit better than the average human.

There have been numerous reports of Teslas in auto-pilot crashing into things, just Google "Tesla self-driving accident" and you will find them. (I'm not picking on Tesla they just seem to be involved in the most frequent reports).

In the cars I've driven with self-driving features I have experienced a few problems, problems that could have caused a less experienced driver to have an accident.

In one vehicle the self-braking component of the smart cruise control slammed on the brakes when it mistook an asphalt patch on a concrete roadway as an obstacle. Thankfully the vehicle was creeping along at about 10 mph but it sure gave the driver behind me a scare (it startled me too).

In a different vehicle the smart cruise control got confused by two motorcycles lane-splitting (legal here in California) stop-and-go traffic, and the car sped up momentarily causing me to have to brake manually.

Lane keeping assist depends on the lines on the road so when the lines disappear it shuts off. I am aware of this so I always keep my hands on the wheel but does everyone? One car I drove flashed a warning if my hands were not on the wheel for a specified time - good idea.

The first car I encountered that used self-braking was a Volvo many years ago. The demonstration involved driving a Volvo toward a fake brick wall and the car stopped all by itself. It really was amazing. That was over 15 years ago.

Like I said, I am not a luddite, I am not against technology. I do want technology to be safe though. 

Part of the appeal of autonomous cars is that they would be safer than human drivers. Maybe they are but they are not perfect. The proponents might say that any reduction in accidents, injuries, and deaths is a good thing. I can't argue with that. But are self-driving cars safe enough? I don't think so.

One more thought - Autonomous cars may seem great but will they really reduce traffic? Let's focus our efforts on autonomous mass transit. Let's get people out of their cars and give our highways and byways a break.


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