Howes: Drivers needed in quest for autonomous vehicle

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The road to self-driving cars depends on people.

It requires people to understand and learn the limitations of technology embedded in their new ride. It needs people who don’t mistake the “Autopilot” in their Tesla model for the system that flies Airbus airliners safely around the world.

It especially demands people who don’t risk getting themselves killed for trusting a machine to do something it’s not designed to do — like Joshua Brown, the 40-year-old former Navy Seal from my hometown of Canton, Ohio. He died in May when a 2015 Tesla S on “Autopilot” failed to detect a semi and slammed into its trailer while he was said to be watching a “Harry Potter” movie.

“Autosteer keeps the car in the current lane and engages Traffic-Aware Cruise Control to maintain the car’s speed,” according to Tesla Motors Inc. “Tesla requires drivers to remain engaged and aware when Autosteer is enabled. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel.”

Note the word “must.” When drivers don’t, bad things can follow. People can get killed; accidents can happen, as Park West Gallery owner Albert Scaglione told police after his Tesla rolled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; and public confidence in a promising technology can be undermined.

This is not your father’s auto industry. The convergence of old manufacturing and new technology is forging a new, disruptive business. It will look very different from the model built, dismantled and then rebuilt again by three companies in Detroit and their operations in the industrial Midwest.

The new iteration promises to restructure the realities of driving and personal transportation. It likely will impact materially the investment theses for both the traditional auto industry and the Silicon Valley-based tech industry making a big play for position in the auto space.

It will extend the intrusiveness of the wireless tech industry into the brain of the vehicle. And that could further erode the privacy of both driver and passengers, effectively creating an electronic referee apportioning blame for accidents between the vehicle, the driver or both.

The net result is dramatic change. It could revise the principles connecting liability with the auto insurance business; could favor automakers in the quest for culpability in accidents because they will own the data created and stored in vehicles; could restrain the relative freedoms associated with driving for the past century.

But the transition is unlikely to be as smooth as the upgrade to a new iPhone. Not if the technology depends on human beings to understand its capability, to respect its limits and to use the software-driven hardware correctly, as it was designed.

The likes of Tesla’s Autosteer, a component of its Autopilot, and the fully autonomous Google car still in its testing phase are the most prominent examples of those all-new suites of technology. They will take time, miles and accumulated experience before meaningful numbers of drivers are comfortable and clamoring to own them.

What’s not new to the industry are the adoption phases associated with new technology, or the learning curve that tends to begin on high-priced metal (the Tesla S today, the Cadillacs, Lincolns and Packards of old) before it migrates across vehicle line-ups and becomes commonplace.

Examples: Anti-lock braking systems forced two generations of drivers to unlearn the habit of pumping brakes in slippery conditions. Electronic transmission shifters are requiring drivers to forget the feel of mechanical gates as you shift from park to reverse and then to drive. Some don’t, witness the recent shifter flap on Jeep Grand Cherokees.

Bluetooth, satellites and wireless connectivity are turning the average family ride into an office (or family room) on wheels. The increasingly seamless stream of information and entertainment introduces a whole new set of driver distractions to the nation’s highways, endangering everyone in the vicinity.

And automakers have worked hard for generations to slake drivers’ hunger for more power and more speed — even if some of the more reckless have ended up wrapping their hot metal around a tree somewhere. Why? Because the Racer Boys failed to appreciate just what their new ride could do, and how quickly it could do it.

Paradigm-shifting technology is not new to the auto industry and its customers worldwide. What’s new is the effort to excise people from the process and replace them with machines — and they have limitations, too.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.