2018.03.07 No big hurry to ride in an autonomous car


I keep seeing news reports stating that autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are just around the corner, no pun intended. Of course, they’ve been saying that about flying cars for decades, but unfortunately, autonomous cars will probably be here sooner rather than later. A few are already on the road being tested, a fact that concerns more folks than just this writer.

Last summer, AAA released results of a survey that found 78 percent of respondents felt “afraid” to ride in a self-driving vehicle. There wasn’t a huge difference by age group as a low of 73 percent of millennials reported feeling afraid increasing to 85 percent of baby boomers.

But it wasn’t just riding in an autonomous car that bothered many. Over half of the respondents, 54 percent to be precise, reported they would feel “less safe” just having to share the road with self-driving vehicles used by others. Ten percent said they would feel safer while the remainder said there would be no difference.

One thing holding back self-driving vehicles is teaching them to deal with situations that don’t follow the rules. For example, they are programmed to follow the speed limit, a behavior not always followed by the human-directed vehicles sharing the road. An Associated Press article says another problem is dealing with local traffic customs.

For example, out west, many drivers make what is called a “California Stop,” in which they will roll through a stop sign if they can’t see any cross traffic. Such behavior would confuse an autonomous car.

They there’s the “Pittsburgh Left,” a practice often found both in western Pennsylvania and in Boston. Here, drivers usually allow one oncoming car to turn left in front of them before moving after their traffic light turns green.  An autonomous car would most likely proceed immediately, possibly hitting the turning car.

Another example of a local custom occurs in Ann Arbor, where drivers “regularly cross a double-yellow line to queue up for a left turn onto a freeway.” Autonomous cars, programmed not to cross a double-yellow, may just stop, unsure of what to do.

I could see similar problems happening locally, as I’ve twice been in the position of watching drivers perform what I guess I should call a “Fayette Right.” That occurs when you are traveling north on Fayette Street and stop at the light downtown. When the light turns green, the car in the left turn lane, instead of turning left, floors the gas and makes a right turn in front of you before you can continue north.

The first time this happened, the driver was fortunate I wasn’t in as big a hurry as he was. Ever since, I’ve waited a second after the light changes to make sure traffic in the left turn lane actually wants to turn left. Several times, cars have continued on straight ahead, ignoring the signs to the contrary, but only one more has attempted the “make a right turn from the left turn lane” maneuver. In both cases, they were lucky Buick didn’t have autonomous cars in 2006. Future technology may trump their ignorance.

Another problem as old as driving itself may ultimately impede the growth of autonomous vehicles. Does everybody remember motion sickness?

A recent article in Motor Trend magazine cited research from the University of Michigan that concluded that six to 12 percent of adults riding in self-driving cars “will likely suffer moderate to severe motion sickness,” or, as researchers like to call it, kinetosis. Drivers of conventional vehicles don’t usually get sick as they have control over the vehicle’s motion. This reduces conflicts between what motion the vehicle makes and what the body was expecting.

Passengers usually chat with the driver or watch where the vehicle is going, cutting their chance of kinetosis as well. An autonomous vehicle, however, throws those safeguards out the window, if it even has an window.

Many autonomous prototypes feature center-facing seats, opaque windows or video screens instead of windows, making passengers more likely to get carsick as they have no view of their surroundings. Want to take a chance you’re not one of the six to 12 percent?

I think an autonomous car is something I’ll let a few million other people test first. Maybe by the time I’m ready to buy, they’ll finally have those flying cars on the market.