Monday, October 21, 2013

"Finding the Robot Chauffeur"

From n+1:

The footnotes to car ads have grown more interesting of late. They started decades ago with the innocuous boilerplate, “Professional driver, closed course.” But then someone let the copywriters have their snarky fun. The Ford Fusion Hybrid’s features an enduring classic that appears as the sedan leaps off a cliff: “Fictionalization. Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt. Cars cannot fly.”1

Silly as these warnings sound, the latest fine print inadvertently reveals our automotive future. Since 2010, when it debuted an automatic braking technology that keeps you from mowing down pedestrians, Volvo has been running vague disclaimers like, “City Safety is not a substitute for safe driving.” Mercedes Benz shows its cars racing across the frozen north thanks to its intelligent traction system with the countervailing footnote, “Drive cautiously based on weather conditions.” Jeep, of all brands, has to remind buyers, “Electronic driver assistance features are not substitutes for active driver involvement.” Chevrolet warns you, “Never rely on its Crash Imminent Braking feature to brake the vehicle.” Yes, the feature stops the Impala from going Titanic and hitting an iceberg while the driver’s eyes wander. But that’s just in the ad.2

The prize for covering the bottom of the screen with advice goes to Toyota’s “May You” commercial, which helpfully explains that “Vehicle Stability Control is not a substitute for safe driving,” “Lane Keeping Assist is not a substitute for attentive driving,” “Pre-Collision system is not a substitute for attentive driving.” To that effect, “Do not rely exclusively on the Blind Spot Monitor to determine if lane changing is safe.”3

These warnings are all baldfaced lies. City Safety is a substitute for safe driving. You can drive as madly as you like thanks to the electronic stability of your Mercedes. Your Jeep is too polite to tailgate. Your Toyota knows better than you do when it can safely change lanes. Lane Keeping Assist and Pre-Collision braking are not just substitutes for attentive driving—inattentive driving is their raison-d’être. Add to these safety features gimmicks such as self-parking and remote starting by mobile phone (“Siri, start the car”) and you have machines that look an awful lot like robot cars.

The American “love affair” with the automobile is often mistaken for a love affair with driving. We think driver distraction arose with the smartphone, but truth be told most Americans never liked driving much. When Oldsmobile debuted Motoring’s Magic Carpet on the eve of World War II, it lamented the struggles of the little lady with a standard transmission: “After nineteen distinct manual operations, she’s finally ready to drive.” Relief came from the Hydra-Matic drive, the original automatic transmission. Times have changed but the dream has not. Today, Mercedes promises a “flying carpet” ride from its laser-guided Magic Body Control active suspension system. Let them wrestle with their overtaxed motors among the dark satanic mills of Europe. Americans invented power steering. Come to think of it, flying carpets don’t even need steering wheels, do they?4

Those who read robot news may think I’m on about the Google Car, the result of Pentagon funding, Stanford computer genius Sebastian Thrun, and of course money from all those little internet adverts. The origin of Google’s small self-driving fleet—each with sixty-four spinning laser beams mounted to its roof and hacker wires running down to the wheels—dates to the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, where Stanley, Stanford’s VW SUV (now on display at the Smithsonian), beat twenty-three other teams in a race through the desert. In 2007, Stanford placed second in DARPA’s urban version of the race, in which cars had to cope with stop signs and other annoyances. They were bested by Carnegie Mellon, but ran ahead of MIT, Virginia Tech, and the rest. Who says college is a waste?...MORE