Drivers seem to be getting ready for robotic cars

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Twice a day on my travels around suburban Detroit, I notice that cars waiting at stop lights delay movement after the lights turn green. It’s not a long pause, but the seconds add up as drivers put down their smartphones or disengage their focus enough from a hands-free voice connection to actually start driving.

Traffic problems are getting worse, not better, and most mobility experts have agreed that more road lanes won’t help speed up the movement of cars on roads. So I believe I’m watching drivers sense this slow-down, and make up for spending more time behind the wheel by being productive with work and social connections, and disconnecting from the responsibility of driving.

Drivers seem to be signaling that they’re ready for cars to take over driving duties. And with self-driving car technology, drivers have the chance to blame their cars for accidents.

They would be right: Automotive risk expert Cian Ryan said says that in the future, “The nature of at-fault collisions will ... be functional and symptomatic of hardware, software and/or security failures rather than human error.”

So drivers will be off the hook.

Automakers are supporting that relief for drivers: Volvo says it will self-insure its future self-driving cars. General Motors has announced that it will be responsible for accidents caused by its autonomous vehicle systems.

Several cars, like Cadillac’s CT6 and three models of Teslas, already promise some self-driving capabilities. By the end of 2018, Volvo promises self-driving cars here.

The Teslas and Cadillac currently meet the Society of Automotive Engineers definition of Level 2 autonomous cars, meaning that the human driver is still responsible for taking over when the car is unable to drive itself.

Even with these cars’ advanced abilities, there’s a whole new curriculum of tasks that drivers will have to learn to be able to use a Level 2 self-driving car proficiently. The first is to recognize and tap the brakes or move the steering wheel a bit, which signals these cars to stop driving themselves.

But learning when to take over, such as when the Cadillac or Teslas lose sight of a lane that might have closed, is still a driver responsibility. Frequent warnings are provided to the human driver, such as red instrument panel lights and Cadillac’s vibrating seat, but constant monitoring is still necessary.

Folks who have driven these cars report that they still feel the need to glance out the cars’ windows at surrounding traffic even though there are sensors performing this task. And Tesla’s sensors continue to display helpful warnings of the proximity of other cars — occasionally not visible to the human driver — even when the Teslas are not self-driving, which is a new skill for human drivers.

The reason I love cars was stated clearly by my friend and MG/Triumph collector extraordinaire Everett Smith, who thinks nothing of packing a bag and driving to Panama from the States. We had just returned to Detroit having made a winter road trip in 1990 to Inuvik, Northwest Territories: “Because of cars, you can turn an ignition key on in Michigan, and drive all the way past the Arctic Circle and back, without permission from anyone.”

Here’s the political bomb: With responsibility comes freedom, and vice versa. One way I feel I can keep my freedom to drive is to grab the reins of self-driving cars and learn how to take back my responsibility for driving them. The cars are clearly not here yet, so we drivers can’t give up before they are.