Thursday, December 31, 2015

Baby it can drive your car

With all the recent news about self-driving cars, I’ve had trouble driving back and forth to work. Not because of my usual distraction of clipping my toenails while steering with my knees. It’s because the very notion of cars without humans in control terrifies me.

Not that I’m a Luddite. I can enjoy an online video about the things people behind the wheel of autonomous cars get to do, such as eat pizza, while the car makes all the tough decisions. Even the most mundane of new vehicles are getting GPS, adaptive cruise control, collision alerts, built-in cameras and other cool features, so we’ll be sharing the road with self-driving cars sooner than you might think. And at their best, these cars are said to operate more safely than we emotional wretches could possibly do.

But on a collision course (shameless cliché alert) with driverless cars is that the latest robots are becoming more self-aware—that is, they’re acting more like people, with all the ego issues and biases of their developers. In other words, self-driving cars will soon exceed humans at bringing out the worst of human behavior. Cases in point:

The parking-space predator. If you’ve ever parallel-parked, you’ve fallen victim. After you’ve pulled up beside the car parked in front of a space, you haven’t even begun to back up and swerve in when another driver swoops into the space, snatching it with glee. The challenge for people who steal spaces, though, is that they need an extra-long parking space to maneuver into without going up on the curb and hitting the hydrant. Clumsy humans. Due its superior steering control, a driverless car can slide right in without hitting the hydrant. And there’s no point yelling at the person behind the wheel; interrupt her conference call, and she’ll spill her cappuccino onto her lap and sue you.

Ready for my close-up. Good human drivers know how far back they should follow the car in front—the so-called three-second rule. (No, it’s not about waiting three seconds before flashing your brights.) The first autonomous cars have followed this rule, too, but all bets are off once you cut off a self-driving car that has sprouted an ego. Thanks to its built-in radar technology, you’ll get the unique experience of being tailgated from scant millimeters away. Don’t think twice; just get over. Better still, exit the highway till your heart rate goes back under 200.

You still there? New York drivers pride themselves on how quickly they’ll honk at the drivers in front the instant the light turns green. But self-driving cars will be even quicker studies, so the second time one approaches an intersection, it will have learned its traffic-light timing. That way, self-driving cars can self-honk at the driver in front .001 microsecond after the light turns green. Take that, New Yawkers.

Swearing they’re better. Humans can only holler so much at other drivers, and at so high a volume, before their throats dry up. After that point, they’d need to pause for a drink and listen to common sense—a.k.a. their wives. Driverless cars can use smart algorithmic tweaking of the car’s audio circuitry to drown out car horns as they shout their searing insults, such as the dreaded monotone “WHERE-DID-YOU-LEARN-TO-DRIVE-YOU-SPARK-PLUG-HEAD?” In autonomous car development, alas, writers are the last to be hired.

Such exchanges make sense only between robotic and human drivers. But eventually all vehicles will be driverless, and that’s when we’ll really learn what mankind has wrought. With the next generation of vehicles’ self-awareness will come even greater anger and indignation. Couple that with self-driving vehicles’ next-generation spatial precision, and we’ll have a roadful of cars that flit in and out of highway lanes faster than humanly possible, cutting one another off at speeds that would exceed the measurable speed range of the best police-radar sensors. And even if the police did pull a car over, it’s hard to know who gets the ticket. The car? Or the human curled up on the floor, sobbing for Mother?

You’ll have to start now if you want to reverse this trend in the bud. Just visit your local congressman. Politicians never return calls or emails—you only vote for them—so you’ll need to appear in person.

Just take public transportation. And be very, very careful should you need to cross the street.

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