Smart cars or stupid people?

As a reader of science fiction, I’ve thought lots about the ways that technology may change transportation. The flying cars that we children imagined forty years ago would be a reality by now are still in the distant future (I think), but the earth-bound cars we have can do things we didn’t imagine back in 1970 (maybe somebody did, but not my class when we had the assignment of imagining how things would be in 2000).

Until the system failed (and it was not practical for us to get it repaired), my husband could start his car on wintry days by pressing a button from within a warm building. On long trips, I can relax my right leg and let the car take care of maintaining its speed. If we chose to spend the money, we could get a system that would tell us how to get to our destination, without having to stop at gas stations to ask directions.

And if you buy a new Volvo S60, you can pay for a technology option that includes pedestrian detection.

According to Volvo, the system can track up to 62 such objects*, calculating if any of them are on an intercept course. If a collision with one of these data-pedestrians seems imminent, the car will alert the driver with flashing red lights and a frantic beeping. If the driver still doesn’t react, the car will slam on the brakes, avoiding the pedestrian up to speeds of 22 mph.
*[i.e. those that appear to be human pedestrians]

The article makes some good points about the possible drawbacks of such a system. Would drivers become more inattentive, expecting the car to notice the pedestrians for them? If you knew such a system was available and decided your budget didn’t allow for it, then hit a pedestrian who was talking on the cell phone and ignoring crosswalks and traffic lights? Would you feel morally responsible for not having purchased a system that might have prevented someone’s injury, even though the injury was brought on by the person’s own foolishness?

Comments on the article bring up other issues. There are places crowded with pedestrians, such as airport pickup/dropoff areas, and crowded city streets where both cars and pedestrians clog the streets, moving wherever and whenever a space opens up. Would a car equipped with this system make it virtually impossible to make forward progress? And would it make pedestrians ignore rules about where and when to cross the street more than they already do?

My son (who looked to see what I’m blogging about) offers his own critique. Since the system only works at speeds up to 22 mph, people who want the system to work for them would have to drive below that threshold, slowing down traffic (and likely making other drivers more inclined to try to get around them – perhaps hitting a pedestrian in their hurry to get past). Both drivers and pedestrians should simply watch out more, he insists.

I think I’m inclined to agree with him. It’s great what technology can do, but it often has unintended consequences, one of the biggest being that we come to rely on it too much. When I get out of my car I nearly always remember to turn off the headlights first, but I know that if I forget, the car will beep to remind me. Until, of course, something goes wrong with the system and it no longer beeps, as happened with one of my previous cars – leading to me leaving on the lights and draining the battery on more than one occasion.

The technology itself isn’t the problem. As another comment on the article pointed out, a really useful application of it would be to prevent collisions with deer, who cannot be taught to watch out for cars. (My husband hit six back when we lived in New Jersey, I hit one when we lived in Michigan, and we’ve had near misses in both of those states and here in Iowa.)

Still, the thought that this technology is available today makes me wonder what might be available within a decade or two. I think a car on auto-pilot would have many of the same drawbacks as this pedestrian detection system, but on those occasions when I’m struggling to stay awake on a long drive, I think how great it would be to let the car drive itself while I take a nap. Or during a traffic jam (would they even occur with smart cars?), I could sit back and read a book instead of having to pay attention to when the car ahead moved and when it stopped.

Of course, with teleportation (one of my husband’s fond wishes), the whole issue of driving would go away altogether. But it would have its own problems – as little exercise as some people get today, at least having to walk from the parking lot to the door gives them a little bit of healthy exercise. If every building had a teleport device, just think how much worse our problems with obesity would get.

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3 Responses to Smart cars or stupid people?

  1. Margaret says:

    The question that doesn’t seem to be answered is, could the driver override the system? Is there a button to push that says, yes, I see that pedestrian but I want to keep going without braking (at an airport, etc.)?

  2. jon evans says:

    Obesity won’t be a problem if we can just teleport to the gym and spend all that time we gain from not travelling working out. 😛

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