Autonomous vehicles: Who’s driving who?

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Writing about hybrid and autonomous vehicles this week got me thinking more about the future of driving.

I guess it won’t be too much longer and we’ll see autonomous, battery-powered big rigs out on the road. Who knows? They might get juiced up during the day at huge solar power charging stations, then take to the highways at night to deliver goods across the country.

Companies like Greenkraft and Efficient Drivetrains have been hard at work bringing alternative fuel technology to commercial and vocational vehicles. Look out compact hybrids. These guys are working in classes 3,4,5,6 and 7. It’s impressive. True, some alternative fuels are controversial—and for good reason. But if the tech heads don’t keep trying, then we’ll never move forward.

But how forward is too far?

In May, celebrated English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicted that computers, through artificial intelligence, or AI, will dominate humans within 100 years. He obviously hasn’t seen my smartphone. It’s been kicking me around ever since I bought it two years ago!

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate technology a lot. I’m still impressed with my GPS and OBD-II diagnostic systems. Granted it doesn’t always tell me exactly what’s wrong with my truck, but it will generally point me in the right direction. My truck’s on-board diagnostics, though old, will tell me when I need to change my oil and how many more miles I can drive until I run out of fuel. Do I need more tech in my truck? No, not really.

But the tech race is not always about me or you—it’s about the meeting the challenging demands of the market in the most economical and eco-friendly way possible. Does that mean that one day I’ll have to give up driving my old truck in favor of a more advanced automated vehicle? I hope not.

Growing up in southern California in the 1970s I got used to seeing long lines of gas guzzling cars and trucks waiting for their turn to fuel up. Some of you remember those lines. It was all thanks to the oil crisis. License plates ending in even and odd numbers determined the days on which gas could be bought. Dad’s ‘69 Oldsmobile with its 455 Rocket engine frequently got stuck in those lines. Autonomous vehicles and additional fuel sources could spare us the problem of not only having to fuel-up frequently, but also end dependence on a single fuel source.

Still, I start thinking about that first autonomous big rig to hit the road. If it travels the same road with your typical 20th century drivers, I pray they don’t advertise it too much. If the trailer is adorned with huge letters reading something like, “Automated Trucking International: Going Green for Less,” drivers are going to be rubber-necking and moving in for a picture or two.

Taking humans out of the equation may reduce accidents and increase productivity, but the challenge is that you’ve taken humans out of the equation, which means job losses and lack of personal interaction on the road. I’m no Luddite, but I’d rather deal with another human being on the road than an autonomous machine. It’s worse than getting a company’s automated answering service when calling for help. A huge machine trucking down the road doesn’t care about your last-second mission to change lanes and stop at Prairie Dog Town. That’s why I wonder if we’ll even be able to share the road with autonomous vehicles. New roads may have to be constructed, or at the least, perhaps they’ll have to drive at designated times, like in the wee hours when most of us are sleeping.

Then there’s the possibility of hacking. Recently, a teenager in New York was able to hack the email of the director of the CIA. While autonomous technology is intended to operate without outside interference, such a system will have to have permit periodic communication with an outside source, if nothing else, for safety and security reasons.

Even the new robotic driving system from Ford and Autonomous Solutions Inc., though autonomous during its normal test-driving mode on Ford’s toughest courses, that system can, if necessary, be overridden by an engineer.

I appreciate that a computerized car running on its own at highway speeds can be stopped dead in its tracks by a vigilant and concerned human being. However, the technology that allows for such a remote feature can be duplicated and then used by an unscrupulous jerk.

I don’t mean to conjure up images of Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive,” the 1980s horror film in which big rigs, cars and just about any machine that could wreak havoc were overtaken and controlled by a menacing force. Still, as technology continues to take on greater roles, we have to be mindful of who’s really in the driver’s seat.