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Digital Summit: How About a Sort-of-Autonomous Car?

I want a self-driving car, but it needs different levels of independence depending on the situation.
June 10, 2014

There are good drivers out there–my dad, for instance, who spent years driving through awful, snowy weather in upstate New York–but most of us aren’t as good as we think we are behind the wheel. In theory, driverless cars like the ones Google is testing provide a potential solution: turn control over to a computer, and we humans can sit back and do the things we love (eating, shaving, checking e-mail, playing the trumpet, etc.) but can’t do safely while controlling a heavy, fast-moving metal box on wheels.

I’m not so sure that’s the answer. Beyond all the technological issues that still need to be worked out for automated cars to come to market—and the psychological hurdles we’ll need to clear to entrust our lives to the vehicles around us and the computer controlling our own—I wonder if total automation is really what we need.

During a panel discussion about connected cars at MIT Technology Review’s Digital Summit on Tuesday in San Francisco, an audience member posed an interesting question: Might cars of the future have different levels of autonomy for zooming around town and zipping along the freeway?

Sven Beiker, executive director at the Center for Automative Research at Stanford University and a speaker on the panel, thinks so. “When people ask when we will have the automated car, the more accurate question is where will we have the automated car,” he said.

I agree. Driving around San Francisco, with its predictably unpredictable drivers, I like having full control of my tiny Scion Xa. I’m hopeful that computers can eventually do a better job than I at anticipating what other drivers will do, but unless every single person around me literally buys into the automated car market–paying for self-driving vehicles that exchange all kinds of data over a blazingly fast, reliable wireless network–I anticipate that city driving will remain largely human-controlled.

On the freeway, though, it’s another story. Drivers are going much faster, yes, but making more predictable maneuvers on the road. You don’t see that many left turns or U-turns on 101. An autonomous car would have an easier time with this kind of environment, since there would probably be fewer situations where it needs the kind of intuition and anticipation that humans excel at. This is why automated lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, and other automation features are emerging first for highway driving. If they keep progressing, it would be incredible to fly down the highway while my car takes me to a pre-programmed destination. I’d probably be left with more uninterrupted time for all that e-mail checking and eating than I would if I gave the car the reins on those unpredictable city streets.

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