Published on May 4, 2021

The View from my Seat

Would you trust cars without drivers?

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

My dad, a car dealer, always had the same advice whenever I was shopping for a car.
“Just remember,” he would say, “the more gadgets a car has, the more that can go wrong.”
Back then, he was referring to such crazy innovations as cars with air conditioning and heating, power windows and power seats.

I recalled dad’s advice after seeing news about two Houston-area men being killed in a crash when their Tesla 2019 Model S slammed into a tree.

A preliminary investigation of the accident revealed neither man was driving the car that was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s driver assistance feature.

One man was in the passenger seat and one in the rear seat, officials said. It took four hours to extinguish the fire because of the batteries needed in electric vehicles.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, defends his product saying a Tesla with Autopilot has a lower risk of accident than an average vehicle.

Technically, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. They require “active driver supervision,” but Autopilot can steer, accelerate and brake automatically within a lane.

It is obvious totally self-driving cars are just around the corner but, frankly, I am not all that excited about it. I prefer keeping a firm grip on the steering wheel.

And I am not the only one.

Nearly half of Americans say they would not get in a self-driving taxi or ride-share vehicle that was being driven autonomously, according to the advocacy group Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE).

Polls like this suggest a potential problem regarding consumer acceptance of self-driving cars. The answer, according to PAVE, appears to be in education since 60 percent of those surveyed said they would have greater trust in autonomous vehicles if they knew more about how the technology works.

So, dear readers, I thought I would perform a public service and find a thorough explanation of how self-driving cars will work. See if you feel better.

The following comes from Synopsys, a company at the forefront of advanced technologies:
“Autonomous cars create and maintain a map of their surroundings based on a variety of sensors situated in different parts of the vehicle. Radar sensors monitor the position of nearby vehicles. Video cameras detect traffic lights, read road signs, track other vehicles and look for pedestrians.
Other sensors bounce pulses of light off the car’s surroundings to measure distances, detect road edges and identify lane markings. Wheel sensors detect curbs and other vehicles when parking.
Software then processes all this sensory input, plots a path and sends instructions to the car’s actuators, which control acceleration, braking and steering.

Hard-coded rules, obstacle avoidance algorithms, predictive modeling, and object recognition help the software follow traffic rules and navigate obstacles.”

You got all that? I am sure proponents of self-driving cars would ask, “What could possibly go wrong?”

My dad would say “that’s a lot of gadgets.”

As for me, all I can think about is all those automated safety features on the accident-prone Boeing 737 MAX.

I don’t want to be too negative on self-driving. There are some advantages.

Experts say that 94 percent of the 37,133 vehicle fatalities in 2017 were due to human error. It is estimated self-driving cars can reduce accidents by 90 percent.

Self-driving cars may also increase traffic efficiencies as they would be able to determine the best route to take. (I wonder if self-driving cars will know not to take those ever-more-costly toll roads.)
There are, however, some interesting disadvantages, including the possibility of the car being hacked.

Don’t laugh. In 2015, hackers brought a Jeep to a halt on a St. Louis highway by wirelessly accessing its braking and steering via the on-board entertainment system.

That demonstration proved even conventional vehicles have vulnerabilities that could be exploited. Self-driving cars, which would get updates and maps through the cloud, would be at greater risk.
Hackers could disable cars and hold them for ransom until receiving digital payments.

By far the biggest disadvantage may be financial. Some experts estimate it will cost an additional $250,000 per vehicle to own a fully autonomous vehicle.

That may be a dead-end for self-driving cars.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)