Bring on Level 5: Fully Autonomous

I’ve finally given up. Time to cry “uncle,” throw in the shop towel, admit defeat. For years, in this magazine and others, I’ve passionately extolled the virtues of driving—the freedom to go wherever, whenever, the pride of personal responsibility, the satisfaction of being in command of a complex machine, the rapture of exercising an exceptional car on a mountain road. But I can’t ignore the reality any longer. With a lump in my throat, I have to concede that as a species we humans have blown it. We don’t deserve to drive.

Time to hand our steering wheels to the robots.

We’re a curious lot, humans. Every day, on the TV news, on internet sites, around the water cooler, even at the ball game, we wring our trembling hands over ISIS, al-Qaida, and all those scary “furriners” we need to lock out of our country to protect ourselves. Yet last year, in two jihadist attacks on our soil, 19 people died. In the 15 years since 9/11, and through the time I write this (which includes the shocking June attack in Orlando), the total comes to 94 deaths.

Now contrast that with driving, an act almost no one equates with “fear.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, 35,200 motorists died on U.S. roads—up 7.7 percent from the year before. And yet, somehow we’re OK with that, unafraid, even accepting. “It’s the price we have to pay.”

Ford DSFL texting 4

Allow me to put 35,200 deaths into perspective. That’s almost 3,000 men, women, and children dead every single month, year in, year out—roughly four airliner crashes every week. As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, annual U.S. traffic fatalities surpass the yearly dead during the military conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the War of 1812 and the American Revolution. Add injuries suffered in car wrecks, and one year of American driving is more dangerous than all of those wars put together.

But does that reality scare us? Not at all. On the contrary, we’ll happily climb behind the wheel of our 400-horsepower TurboGrande Luxe and send highly important texts while whistling down the freeway at 75 mph. And that’s why we have to go. (In an absurd but sadly appropriate coincidence, as I write this, yet another in a long string of near-weekly fender benders has just occurred at the four-way stop outside my office window.)

Of course, the advent of non-human driving is already here. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, for instance, allows drivers at times to take their hands and feet off the controls and let their Model S do all the driving. But this is a technology still in its infancy, and Tesla stresses that even with Autopilot engaged drivers need to remain alert and ready to grab the wheel and/or hit the brakes at all times. But do they? Of course not. Why would we expect a driver with Autopilot to remain alert when I regularly see drivers without Autopilot breaking out a magazine or smartphone to catch up on the ISIS threat? Sadly, that reality proved itself May 7 when a Tesla S owner—who had previously shared videos of himself reading behind the wheel—became the first fatality in a semi-autonomous car.

2017 Tesla Model S front side view

Tesla’s Autopilot is considered “Level 2” autonomous by the Society of Automotive Engineers—with automated cruise control and lane-centering but still requiring the driver’s full attention. I want Level 5—fully autonomous, the driver cut out of the loop, no steering wheel or pedal anywhere. That’s the direction Alphabet (parent company of Google) is taking; its prototype includes only a green “Go” button and a red “Stop” button. But a Level 5 autonomous car is still years off; the most ambitious makers—such as Toyota—say they won’t appear until at least 2020. Meantime, as truly impressive as Autopilot and other Level 2 technologies are, anyone who fully relies on them for “driving” is simply playing guinea pig—and behaving as a dangerous fool.

It’s my sincere hope “regular” human-driven cars survive—perhaps with additional tests required for the privilege of taking your Ferrari or Miata out for a Sunday romp. But if the golden age of the automobile is soon over and steering wheels disappear, we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame. When a fellow enthusiast looks to me and asks how it happened, I know what I’ll say: “It’s the price we have to pay.”

Automobile Magazine

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