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Baby, you can’t drive my car: Why I’m not excited about Ford’s fully autonomous vehicle
August 17, 2016
4 Min Read
Ford just announced that it expects to have a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles for urban car sharing and ride hailing by 2021, and it is taking aggressive steps to achieve that. Other mainstream automotive OEMs such as General Motors and Audi are moving forward on this, as well, and Google and maybe Apple (they’re not talking) are heading in that direction. Just this week, Google brought an autonomous car to Phoenix and ran it through its paces on state route 60 during rush hour, a test for even the most proficient driver, much less a driverless car! (Although there was a driver in this test vehicle just to keep the vehicle honest.)
Google placed ads for “vehicle safety specialists” to sit in the self-driving vehicle, keep an eye on it and write reports about its performance. It’s Google’s first step toward consumer acceptance. The company is taking these vehicles around to various cities to show them off, test them out on roadways, and generally get the buying public excited about driving—er, riding—in an autonomous vehicle.
Some vehicles have a limited amount of automation as well as safety features such as beeping, if you drift over into the next lane, or automatic braking and other warning signals to prevent accidents just in case you’re playing Pokemon Go and fail to see the stopped vehicle in front of you. In other words, we all need vehicles that can save us from ourselves and our bad driving habits.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said in a video interview that the company will settle for nothing less than a “level 4” fully autonomous vehicle, i.e., no steering wheel, brake or gas pedals. “We have confidence that taking the driver out of the loop is really important, but it’s really a no-man’s land—at what point do you have to re-engage the driver?”
Which brings up another point that the woman doing the interview broached with Fields: In the event of an accident in one of these driverless vehicles, who’s liable? Fields noted that all of the legalities will have to be worked out with regulatory, consumer and industry groups.
Yeah, and like one auto industry attorney told me, lawyers are champing at the bit for driverless car crashes because they won’t have to sue some 16 year old with no insurance or money. They can sue the automotive OEMs—and the software developers, camera makers, and everyone else with deep pockets—that will be held responsible if a driverless car gets into an accident.
Recent news reports say that the family of Joshua Brown, who was killed in May while using his Tesla’s “autopilot” feature, has retained an attorney to look into a liability suit, but still hasn’t decided whether or not to sue the company. Tesla fired its camera vendor and has engaged another supplier after it was initially suspected that the camera mistook the large white side of a semi for the white sky and drove under it, killing Brown.
I’d say there are a few wrinkles in this whole thing that need to be ironed out before we send fleets of cars into city traffic to fend for themselves. Since people won’t own these driverless, autonomous vehicles, the companies that own them will be liable for mishaps that injure or kill riders, other drivers or pedestrians.
The big question is whether or not the masses are ready—both financially and culturally—for self-driving vehicles. Let’s face it, we’re a nation of car-lovers and drivers. Just go to a Barrett-Jackson auto auction and watch how people drool over their favorite 1957 Chevy Bel Air or vintage Corvette or Thunderbird. Or consider how many people join one of the hundreds of collector car clubs in the country, such as the one my significant other and I belonged to before his death. The Scottsdale Corvette Club is filled with people—men and women—whose passion is owning—and driving—their Corvettes.
Autonomous cars will be priced well beyond the means of the masses, which is why the OEM fleet idea is the best option for “level 4” cars. Only a few very wealthy people will actually own a self-driving car because of the cost. According to one news report, just the spinning bucket that sits on top of the Google car—the 32 or 64 series lidar (pulse light measuring optical radar)—costs $85,000!
Proponents claim these self-driving cars will increase safety, but can we really believe that? Do we really want a totally safe, risk-free world? Would that kind of world really be fun? And how safe can it be if one in every 10,000 cars driving around the city is an autonomous vehicle? Can they actually stay out of the way of all those drivers who are making mistakes? Does keeping us safe actually mean keeping us all from driving?
Do we really want cars that no one will drive?
About the Author(s)
Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."
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