The news carried by Reuters on Thursday, June 25, that two self-driving cars from rival makers almost had an accident during a lane-change maneuver on a street in Palo Alto, Calif., may be the most encouraging recent news to come from the growing effort to develop autonomous vehicles. The key word here is “almost.” The fact is that they didn’t actually have an accident.
What apparently happened is that two self-driving cars, both occupied by passengers in the drivers’ seats but who were not actually driving, wanted the same spot in the same lane. A Google prototype, based on a Lexus RX400h hybrid crossover SUV, pulled into the line of traffic that the other car was preparing to enter.
The second car, a prototype Audi Q5 crossover SUV from auto parts maker Delphi, detected the lane change by the Google vehicle and aborted its own lane change until the lane was clear, at which point it also changed lanes. That’s it. Had this happened while the humans in the cars were driving, the moves would have been totally routine.
As it happens both of the autonomous vehicles handled the situation exactly as they should have. There was no exchange of rude gestures or screamed obscenities. It was by all accounts a non-event other than the fact that they were driving in traffic on public streets. Now, writers in the non-tech media are seeing reason for concern.
A little context is probably needed. I live and work in the suburbs of Washington, DC. An event such as the one above would have been notable mostly because of the lack of gunfire or other murderous intent.
Were such an event to happen with human drivers on the Capitol Beltway, the drivers (likely lobbyists or Congressional staffers or both) would have gestured, shouted, taken photos with their phones all while ignoring the traffic around them. Then while still nominally driving their vehicles they would have uploaded the images to the local television stations along with breathless commentary.
I simply cannot wait for the day when only autonomous cars are allowed on the Beltway. I suspect the beleaguered commuters around Los Angeles and New York and other big cities feel the same way, but still there’s concern about driverless cars.
When I hear about those concerns, I’m reminded of the times when I used to visit my mother’s office. Mom was the advertising director for a big department store in my home town and I would take an elevator to reach her office.
Why the Near Collision of Two Self-Driving Cars Is Good News
The elevator attendant, who was nearly old enough to be a Civil War veteran, would dutifully close the elevator door, then he’d rotate a massive controller that then caused the car to lift. At the top, he’d pull open the door so I could leave. “Have a good day, Mr. Rash,” he’d always say, “Tell your Mom hello.”
Years later he was still there, but the elevator had been renovated. The attendant would press a button, the car would go to the top floor, and the door would open, but I’d still exchange pleasantries. Not long after that, the attendant retired and the elevator ran itself.
There are, of course, differences between self-driving cars and self-driving elevators, but not as many as you’d think. Right now we’re at the stage where there’s a human at the controls, but doesn’t do much, kind of like the old gentleman who pressed the elevator buttons. In both cases, they’re there to make people feel better.
But what will probably make people feel much better than that is if they don’t have to confront the crazed lobbyists and lawyers in the traffic around Washington. With that in mind, Virginia Tech, the Virginia Department of Transportation, Nokia and others will begin testing autonomous cars on Virginia highways in the chaos of the traffic here.
Will self-driving cars be able to handle the homicidal drivers around Washington? Perhaps they will if enough of those cars are seen on the highways behaving themselves, staying out of accident and improving the flow of traffic.
But I don’t think that the predictions by some will come true that eventually all driving will be automated. There are times when there’s simply not a way to replace the driver or when the driver will want to be replaced.
I still remember vividly the epiphany that came while I drove a Lotus Elan along the twisting series of switch-backs that is U.S. Route 501 north of Lynchburg, Va. until I reached the amazing vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway. That little green car came alive in my hands in ways that no touchscreen or digital controller ever could.
I remember how the sound of the engine filled my senses along with the aroma of the pine forests as one mountain cove after another opened before me. Then reaching the Parkway I cruised along with nothing but muted sounds as the glory of the Blue Ridge Mountains unfolded.
This is what driving should be. What we do on the highways around Washington or other cities isn’t really driving, it’s transportation. And like other forms of transportation that are giving way to automated controls, it should be treated as such.