Smart Vehicles & Dumb Drivers
by Thomas Day
At last year’s MN Motorcycle Safety Center’s Safety Conference, Richard Bishop, an “intelligent vehicle systems consultant,” offered predictions about the electronics that could be installed in cars, trucks, and motorcycles in the future. Bishop discussed everything from adaptive cruise control and ABS to driver-less vehicles. His audience was mostly made up of experienced motorcyclists, many of whom seemed to be a bit more skeptical than the average citizen. Some of whom were, occasionally, downright paranoid.
Some of us are always paranoid. I’m proud to share the road with people who suspect the motivations and capabilities of the folks who gave us Ford Explorer tire specifications and most of General Motor’s irregular products. Having spent a good part of my working life involved in electronic engineering and manufacturing, I do my best to isolate my mechanical equipment from my electrical equipment. I am unconvinced that mechanical devices and electrical devices play well together. I don’t even own cars with electric windows.
In my opinion, Bishop’s engineering optimism needed all of the practical experience in the room to offset his rose-tinted outlook. At one somewhat frustrated moment, we were provided the justification that the military has been using this technology for years, so it’s well shaken-down science. I’m not looking forward to sharing the road with equipment that has the usual mil-standard sixty-second MTBF. I suspect that only a few of us can afford equipment produced by the folks who gave the country $5,000 toilet seats and $150,000 tachometers (analog meters, not digital displays). A few years ago I might have taken some comfort in the knowledge that NASA is integral to mil-spec design standards, but NASA capabilities have slipped a good bit in the last decade.
There are some interesting applications planned for semi-smart vehicles. Many of motorcyclists’ favorite hazards may become automated hazards in the next decade or two. Smart municipal vehicles (trash trucks, snow plows, ambulances, police cars, and other emergency vehicles) are a Minnesota Department of Transportation “Highway 7” intelligent vehicle project. Snowplows are at the top of the design list. Without being politically incorrect, you could call the smart snowplow program a “great white hope” (or the “great white-out hope”), since the goal is to provide visibility to operators in Minnesota winter conditions.
The core concept of these systems is fatally flawed; especially for motorcyclists. Unless the designers are planning on locking in a standard based on some point in the mid-1960s, the minimum driving skill performance requirement is disastrous for two-wheeled travelers. If the design goal is to build a computer system that can drive as well as a human, we’d better hope they shake out a better driver standard pretty quickly. It seems to me that car drivers are getting less competent by the minute. At this rate of degeneration, it won’t be long before an intelligent system based on a slice of toast will be as smart as a typical driver.
The purpose of drivers’ licensing appears to be to provide every warm body with a license to drive. Instead of maintaining a minimum standard of driving competence, 4-wheeled driving licenses are now handed out in Cracker Jack boxes. I suppose that tactic ensures the car dealers with a constant customer supply, but it’s rapidly degrading highway safety. I suppose it’s all part of a vicious economic system. A hazardous highway provides hospitals and body shops with a constant customer supply, which also sells more new cars and cranks up insurance rates.
Regulations that provide handicapped citizens with full access to 6,000 pound individual transportation, regardless of capability, gets the specially incompetent back on the road after rehabilitation, selling even more new cars with extra features. It’s a closed loop system with a closed loop purpose, selling more new cars to justify more roads and more transportation bureaucracy. And we’re squished in the middle of it all.
I don’t like to jump on the “Minnesota sucks” bandwagon, because I think driving skills are declining all over the country, but Minnesota is far too accommodating to particularly heinous driving handicaps. Eyesight, for example. In 40 years of driving, a half-dozen states, and a dozen licensing tests, Minnesota is the only place in the bunch that thinks I see well enough to drive without corrective lenses. Thirty years ago, Texas suggested that I have my left eye removed, if I wanted to drive without glasses, since that eye is practically useless at any distance. Just add an extra mirror to the car, poke out the eye, and they’d have taken off the restriction. I chickened out and went for the glasses. Minnesota is far more accommodating. I’ve passed this state’s vision test twice in the last six years. I failed that same test in Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, California, Colorado, and Indiana. Inspires confidence in our system, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced drivers with handicaps far worse than mine. Drivers who are so fat that they can’t move once they’ve shoe-horned themselves behind the wheel. Drivers who are so inflexible that they appear to be unable to turn their heads more than the angle required to see what radio station the mechanic left them with on their last oil change. Substance-addicted drivers on cell phones, tobacco, and the usual dope and/or alcohol. We dodge drivers packing hot coffee and donuts and using the steering wheel as a picnic table. We are entertained by drivers who have, apparently, installed bathrooms in their vehicles; shaving, applying makeup, weaving their hair, showering, and . . . so on, while driving to work in the morning.
These are the minimum modern driving standards that the “smart vehicle” designers get to shoot for. This takes the phrase “minimal design standard” to drastic extremes.
Along with that flawed premise, today’s engineers aren’t the men-of-all-seasons MacGyver-wizard-boys that Hollywood often portrays. I worked for a company that dedicated a large building to several hundred engineers. Getting through that parking lot during rush hour was like trying to anticipate electron movement. If those kids had basic physics in their academic history, you couldn’t see it in their driving skills. The products reflected that extreme absence of common sense. I often suspected that product releases depended on the “infinite number of monkeys working for an infinite period of time” staffing philosophy and the artificial intelligence of modern design software
I take back what I said about the piece of toast. Toast could be taught to drive before some of the folks currently on the road could develop the necessary skills. I apologize to toast, everywhere.