Guy W. Farmer: Self-driving cars? No thanks!

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

I sometimes jokingly refer to my new 2016 Subaru Legacy as a “self-driving car” because it’s loaded with high-tech safety features that come in handy on my long road trips to Seattle and Southern California. But would I ever let the car “drive itself” while I’m whizzing down the freeway at 70 miles an hour? No way!

Technophobe that I am (no social media for me), I don’t think the most advanced technology is ever going to replace the human brain in our daily lives. That may make me an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t care. Technology has its limits, as 40-year-old techie Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, discovered in May when he died in the horrific crash of his speeding, self-driving Tesla on a Florida highway. Brown, who had credited his car’s “Autopilot” system for saving his life in April, was killed a month later when that same system didn’t detect the white side of a turning tractor-trailer and failed to activate the brakes in time to avoid a fatal collision.

My new Subaru has lane departure and blind spot warning systems and an “Eyesight” feature that makes it virtually impossible to rear-end another vehicle on the highway. Nevertheless, my hands are always on the steering wheel and my eyes are always on the road when I’m behind the wheel.

Apparently, the unfortunate Mr. Brown was distracted when his self-driving car crashed and other such “drivers” — actually, they’re more like passengers — have been known to read books and watch TV while sitting in the driver’s seat of the new high-tech cars. The driver of the tractor-trailer that collided with Brown’s Tesla reported he heard a Harry Potter movie playing in the car after the crash. Duh!

After Brown’s fatal crash Tesla issued a statement saying “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it isn’t perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.” The Associated Press reinforced that warning by noting “automated (driving) systems still require the driver as a backup in case the vehicle encounters a situation unanticipated by its engineers.” That’s a nice way of saying you might crash if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re behind the wheel.

But wait, there’s more because some seriously ignorant people have posted videos of cars with no one in the driver’s seat, or of someone in the back seat texting friends while watching movies. Of course that’s a recipe for disaster but don’t tell that to those who live life in cyber-space, posting “selfies” all day long or playing Pokemon Go in traffic. They occasionally pay a high price for their total dependence and/or reliance on technology.

This people vs. technology discussion reminds me of when I was assigned to Australia as the American Embassy public affairs officer in 1992 and “brilliant” minds at our Washington, D.C. (Where else?) headquarters decided we could replace our Perth-based diplomatic representative with a high-tech kiosk. To me, that meant writing off the western half of a loyal and reliable international ally, but with the aid of the ambassador — a big George W. Bush campaign contributor — we headed off a misguided move to replace a flesh-and-blood person with a machine.

Well, there I go again, telling a story based on my personal experiences. I apologize to those who may be offended by this departure from journalistic orthodoxy . . . and you know who you are.

Auto industry experts predict there’ll be 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. I hope they’re wrong. Meanwhile, keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.

Guy W. Farmer thinks he’s a good driver.


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