Driver­less ve­hi­cles — will the changes ever af­fect our clas­sics?

You bet they will, mark my words!

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Ini­tially, I didn’t bat an eye­lid when I first read about driver­less cars, be­cause, as many of you know, they are al­ready here — in one form or an­other. Just the other day, while stopped at a set of traf­fic lights here in Christchurch, I saw sev­eral. One had a young fe­male in the driver’s seat with her face down­cast look­ing at some­thing with a light on it in her lap. What­ever it was, she was obliv­i­ous to the fact that the lights had changed to green, and she continued to sit with her eyes down­wards un­til my alpine air horns brought her rapidly back to re­al­ity. Fur­ther down the road, an­other twit, this time a male, was sit­ting at the traf­fic lights read­ing a news­pa­per — with a po­lice car stopped ad­ja­cent to him at the same lights. A quick burst of the siren saw the driver fran­ti­cally shove the news­pa­per down onto the pas­sen­ger seat, and the nice po­lice­man could be seen wav­ing his fin­ger at the er­rant mo­torist by way of cas­ti­ga­tion.

I’m sure many of you will have sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences of idiots in charge of mo­tor ve­hi­cles think­ing that us­ing cell phones, read­ing news­pa­pers, drink­ing cof­fee, eat­ing break­fast, plum­ing one’s hair, shav­ing, etc. are all ac­cept­able and non-dan­ger­ous things to do while com­mut­ing in a car. Clearly, they are to­mor­row’s po­ten­tial new own­ers of the proper driver­less cars, and are seem­ingly just getting in some prac­tice. Well, they need to think again.


Those of you with com­put­ers and lap­tops will prob­a­bly have seen that an­noy­ing lit­tle pop-up screen in the top right-hand cor­ner of the screen that says ‘Google Chrome’. There I was, think­ing it was just an­other internet browser en­gine or some­thing to do with a shiny car, per­haps, but, maybe, it’s ac­tu­ally the first in­road of the driver­less car into our lives! Be­lieve it or not, Google self-driv­ing cars are (ap­par­ently) “a range of au­ton­o­mous cars, de­vel­oped by Google X as part of its project to de­velop tech­nol­ogy for mainly elec­tric cars. Let­ter­ing on the side of each car iden­ti­fies it as a ‘self-driv­ing car’”, Wikipedia tells me.

Wikipedia goes on to say that: “the project was … led by Se­bas­tian Thrun, for­mer direc­tor of the Stan­ford Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence Lab­o­ra­tory and a co-in­ven­tor of Google Street View. Thrun’s Stan­ford team cre­ated the robotic ve­hi­cle Stan­ley which won the 2005 DARPA [De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency] Grand Chal­lenge and a US$2 mil­lion prize from the US De­part­ment of De­fense. The team de­vel­op­ing the sys­tem con­sisted of 15 Google en­gi­neers, in­clud­ing Chris Urm­son, Mike Mon­te­merlo, and An­thony Le­vandowski who had worked on the DARPA Grand and Ur­ban Chal­lenges.

“Leg­is­la­tion has been passed in four US states and Wash­ing­ton, DC al­low­ing driver­less cars. The state of Ne­vada passed a law on June 29, 2011, per­mit­ting the op­er­a­tion of au­ton­o­mous cars in Ne­vada, after Google had been lob­by­ing in that state for robotic car laws. The Ne­vada law went into ef­fect on March 1, 2012, and the Ne­vada De­part­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles is­sued the first li­cense for an au­ton­o­mous car in May 2012, to a Toy­ota Prius mod­i­fied with Google’s ex­per­i­men­tal driver­less tech­nol­ogy. In April 2012, Florida be­came the sec­ond state to al­low the test­ing of au­ton­o­mous cars on pub­lic roads, and Cal­i­for­nia be­came the third when Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law at Google Head­quar­ters in Moun­tain View. In De­cem­ber 2013, Michi­gan be­came the fourth state to al­low test­ing of driver­less cars on pub­lic roads. In July 2014, the city of Coeur d’alene, Idaho adopted a robotics or­di­nance that in­cludes pro­vi­sions to al­low for self-driv­ing cars.”

Pub­lic con­cerns

All clear so far? As Big Al would of­ten say on episodes of the pop­u­lar TV show Home Im­prove­ment, “I don’t think so, Tim!” Mark my words — they will not gain any trac­tion (no pun in­tended) in my time. Al­ready, as re­cently as in May 2016, one of th­ese so-called driver­less cars failed to de­tect a turn­ing truck in front of it, and the driver/ pi­lot was killed. This ve­hi­cle was one of Tesla’s con­trap­tions. As a con­se­quence, US au­thor­i­ties are in­ves­ti­gat­ing pub­lic con­cerns about the safety of such ve­hi­cles. Tesla is also fac­ing a fi­nan­cial squeeze, as heavy debts are due later this year, so it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if the com­pany sur­vives.

Other prob­lems could in­clude the de­ba­cle that would de­velop if any of the satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion went down. We know that, back in May 1967, the Western world’s ballistic mis­sile radar net­work went down be­cause of sud­den fluctuations in the sun’s elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion. For­tu­nately, the weather ex­perts dis­cov­ered it was not the work of Soviet jam­mers. But, if driver­less cars take off (no, wrong choice of words, I think!), how do we know that there won’t be some sort of satel­lite in­ter­fer­ence or com­puter bug that causes may­hem and mishap? We al­ready know that, for ex­am­ple, BMW can dis­able your stolen car wher­ever it is in the world via satel­lite — and it can re­motely let you back into it when you in­ad­ver­tently lock the keys in­side, as long as you didn’t leave them in­side the ve­hi­cle with your cell phone, of course!

As for our clas­sic cars, reg­u­lar readers will al­ready be aware of my ef­forts to bring my Zephyrs up to speed with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, with abysmal re­sults. I have al­ready tried send­ing the Ze­phyr off down the drive­way with­out me be­ing be­hind the wheel, although, to be hon­est, that was not a se­ri­ous at­tempt at driver­less tech­nol­ogy; rather, it was just that I left the hand­brake off, and it de­cided to head for the front gate all by it­self! Luck­ily, I man­aged to scramble into it again and ap­ply the hand­brake — but you get the idea.

If driver­less tech­nol­ogy does takes off, scam­mers will have a whole new arena for their frauds. “Hello? This is so-and-so from What­ever Driver­less Car Com­pany. Can you please go and start your car? There seems to be a prob­lem with it!” Where­upon, you’d go out to the garage and start it up, re­turn to the phone to talk to the scam­mer, only to hear it driv­ing off down the road to who knows where! Re­pos­ses­sions would be able to be done from the dealer’s of­fice, and your bank could call in your loan the same way.

We have enough trou­ble with com­puter hack­ers as it is with­out giving them a whole new play­ground to stuff up. And, for as long as I have my Zephyrs, I in­tend to sit be­hind the wheel driv­ing them as I have al­ways done (one at a time, of course!).

And what about job losses? Ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous re­ports, there will be mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment when peo­ple who rely on driv­ing a ve­hi­cle for a liv­ing are made re­dun­dant.

Fi­nally, re­mem­ber that as fast as one mo­tor com­pany de­vel­oped ‘tam­per-proof’ odome­ters, some­one just as quickly de­vel­oped a pro­gram to tam­per with them. Thus, as soon as driver­less tech­nol­ogy is un­leashed on us, you will be able to buy a gad­get that stuffs up the com­puter of any nearby driver­less cars — which is just how those cell-phone jam­mers work.

Now would be the time to in­vest in a pan­el­beat­ing com­pany, I reckon. Hope­fully you are not read­ing this ar­ti­cle while sit­ting at traf­fic lights!

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