Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Computer-Operated Cars

Oh yes... I have indeed blabbered on endlessly about the desire to prevent humans from "attempting" to drive automotive vehicles. The reason is simple: humans can't drive.

But I thought about digressing a bit on this subject to see where it leads.

The current problems:

Humans die from car "accidents" more frequently than any other form of "accidents" combined. Automotive crashes claim more lives than most diseases as well. The number one cause of car/truck/motorcycle accidents? Human error.

That's right. Human error is the root cause of the vast majority of crashes involving cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, trains, aircraft and even lawn mowing equipment. If it moves under its own power: a human can crash it. And in most cases, take a life or two with it.

Be honest. How many times have you been in traffic and seen someone in another vehicle doing something so completely stupid that it just makes you shake your head in disbelief? Putting on make-up. Grooming. Eating. Reading (I've seen maps, newspapers and even books opened up with eyes fixated on the pages). How about idiots that drive with their dogs in their lap, between their chest and the steering wheel? I haven't even gotten to the drunk driving part yet. It's amazing we don't die in larger numbers every day from dumbass habits like these.

The Ideal?

A car without a steering wheel, gas or brake pedals. Just doors, windows, seats and something to listen to (or watch) for entertainment along the journey. Get in, tell it where you want to go, and sit back and enjoy the ride. A taxi without another human to worry about.

The Advantages?

  • Vastly fewer accidents. Even the worst-case computer glitch is more reliable than the average human "driver". Even DOS version 4 couldn't crash as often as some of the buffoons I see on the road every day.
  • No more drunk driving concerns. Go ahead. Get drunk. Get in and let it drive you home.
  • More efficient time usage. Tired of dropping what you're doing to drive someone else somewhere, only to drop them off and return? Let the car take them. It can even drive itself back, in case you need it later. While you're at work, your family or friend could request the car (with your approval) to drive itself over to pick them up. It doesn't have to sit in a parking lot all day doing nothing.
  • Predictable traffic management: Computer networked cars can communicate among each other to identify bottlenecks (which would be rare) and re-route automatically. Much more reliably than humans listening to radios for traffic reports.
  • No more "rubber-necking" hold-ups. Even if a car malfunctions and goes stupid (or should I say "goes normal" in human terms?) the computer-driven car won't bother slowing down to gawk at the mess. No more back-ups from nosey idiots.
  • More lives saved: How many people would be alive today if they hadn't driven home drunk or fell asleep from working overtime hours?
  • Theft? What's that? If it's computer controlled, it can be built to authenticate the driver. Person breaks in and does what? Hot-wires the ignition? How will they drive it without a steering wheel, gas pedal or brakes? Don't think that today's hackable technology is something that will always be around. There are computer systems that cannot be hacked, you just don't hear about them.
The Downside?

Not to sound "dark" or morbid or anything, but putting this in terms that were commonly used by the likes of Chrysler, GM and Ford throughout the 1950's, 60's and 70's... maybe saving lives isn't economically the best idea. I'm all for moving forward with cars that drive themselves, but I have to play devil's advocate here and argue the counterpoints to see how feasible this really is.

The first air bag prototypes appeared in the 1960's but were deemed too expensive for the simple benefit of "saving lives". The same was true for Anti-Lock brakes, and RADAR collision avoidance systems (which are just now being promised).

So, if we eliminated all the bad things that we currently accept as "normal", what could some of the negative ramifications be?
  • Negative impact on accident recovery services: Ambulances, tow trucks, fire and rescue, body shops, and possibly insurance providers
  • Reduced Hospital admissions
  • Reduced need for ambulances and (oops? ambulance drivers?)
  • Traffic cops? Will they need to write any more tickets? Ever?!??
We've all seen the Sci-Fi versions of this concept. From decades back, described in books, up to today with movies like Minority Report, I Robot and so on. The technology exists today. Technology is not the problem. It's not the hold-up. Humans are the hold-up. Humans are always the hold-up. Humans are what hold us up in traffic every day. I say: give computers a chance. It might fail and crash a few, but at least I won't die knowing it was due to someone reading a paper, eating a burger, petting their lap dog, putting on lipstick, drunk off their ass, and tired from working 16 hours and heading home at 1:00 AM. Go ahead and snicker. But think about it seriously for a moment and ask "why not?"
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