When we published a story about autonomous parking systems in our Feb. 26, 2007 issue, I was surprised by the number of people who told me the idea was revolting. You mean it turns the steering wheel … by itself?
Yes, it turns the steering wheel by itself. There's a controller to make decisions, sensors to provide information and an actuator to operate the rack-and-pinion steering.
While it seems a bit creepy to watch the vehicle turn its own steering wheel, I don't think it's a bad thing. Eventually, vehicle controllers will take over the steering in potential crash situations, and I think we'll all be better off for it.
Admittedly, my opinion is in the minority. Most engineers I've interviewed — even those in the automotive community — have quietly told me they, as drivers, don't feel comfortable giving up control. When shown futuristic active safety features such as collision avoidance, most are more inclined to say, as one of our reasonable readers did, “Your article suggested three methods for reducing traffic fatalities. You missed the quickest and most effective option: Fix the nut behind the wheel.” (See our reader mail.)
I wish it were that easy. The problem is, bad drivers aren't going away. There's a lot of them now, and there's going to be more in the coming decade.
How do I know this? I know because I've had a chance to view the future of in-vehicle electronics, and from a safety perspective, it isn't pretty. As if we all weren't concerned enough about drivers talking on cell phones (a comparatively old problem), there's a new breed of distractions on its way. MP3 players, iPods, navigation devices, memory sticks, hands-free car kits, DVD players, satellite radios and complex sound systems are all vying for our attention. And, when we look at those devices, we'll have to take our eyes off the road for just a fraction of a second.
I'd like to think most drivers will learn to manage the multi-tasking load, but if my local expressways are any indicator, that doesn't appear to be happening. What's more, I don't think I can depend on my local department of motor vehicles to solve the problem by administering more stringent driver tests, since their employees seem to be wrestling with the more complex issue of getting to work on time.
So, yes, I think we'll need some form of technology to help us out of tight scrapes. And if that means eventually allowing a vehicle controller to jerk the steering wheel and pull the car from harm's way, I can accept that.
Oh, I know collision avoidance systems won't be foolproof, especially in the beginning. Inevitably, some car owners will say their collision avoidance systems caused accidents. But as I look around at today's proliferation of distracted and aggressive drivers, not to mention those who seem to exist in altered states of consciousness, I'm struck by one thought:
I'll take my chances with technology.