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Who Needs a Remote-Controlled Car?

Besides James Bond, that is.
May 1, 2012

At the Beijing Auto Show, one car in particular raised eyebrows: a remote-controlled car.

Not a toy, like you had as a kid–but a proper, full-sized automobile, only one that incorporates a remote-control function. We’ve grown used to discussions about a potential future with autonomous cars. But a remote controlled one? Who needs that–besides a certain well-known secret agent?

Assuming legions of murderous spies aren’t on your tail, the uses for your remote-controlled car will be more mundane. The car revealed at the Auto Show is from Chinese automaker BYD. Their forthcoming F3 Plus car, BYD says, is the first mass-produced vehicle featuring remote control driving as a standard feature. Dodging bullets? Not so much. BYD says that the car’s remote feature is the “perfect solution when the parking space is not wide enough for the driver to exit the car once parked.” That, and it might come in handy in heavy rain, if you’d like to have the car pull right up in front of the doorway where you’re taking shelter.

Such is the fate of all secret agent technology, eventually: to make your life ever so slightly more comfortable.

BMW actually has a video of how this technology could come in handy, potentially even transforming a one-car garage into a two-car one.

The video raises the question, though: if a garage is tight enough that the driver can’t exit, isn’t it also so tight that using a remote control to drive it is a terrible idea?

Indeed, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the idea of remotely operating heavy machinery without special training is, categorically, a bad idea. Think of all the practice you had to go through back when you were sixteen and first learned how to drive a car: you had to gain a sense of the car’s size, of the way the pedals yielded, of the way a turn of a steering wheel translated into a turn of the vehicle. Over the years, you gained confidence–but even then, you may have gotten into a scrape or two.

It’s almost axiomatic that using a remote control allows for less precision in controlling a vehicle. Pressing a button can’t serve as a substitute for the fully embodied position of being in a driver’s seat, with two hands on the wheel, a foot on the brake, and the fate of your own body tied to the fate of the vehicle it’s in.

The blog Exhaust Notes is probably correct when it claims that “a technology like this would probably be difficult, if not impossible to implement in the U.S. given the litigious climate in this country.” Wired recently delved into the legality of autonomous vehicles. “The law in California is silent, it doesn’t address it,” a Googler told reporter Tom Vanderbilt. “The key thing is staying within the law — there’s a always a person behind the wheel, the person in the seat is still the driver, they set the speed, they’re ready to take over if anything goes wrong.”

When the driver is no longer literally behind the wheel, though, is she the driver in a meaningful sense? Here is a technology that, even were it to pass legal hurdles in the U.S., I’m not eager to have my neighbors trying out anytime soon.

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