Transportation

Driverless Vehicles: Too Important to Get Wrong

As more carmakers move toward driverless technology in their vehicles, the importance of doing it well increases.

by Editorial Board, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin / October 2, 2017
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(TNS) -- Would you trust the software that runs your smartphone, laptop or tablet with your life?

Well, those who buy one of the new Cadillac CT6 sedans now on their way to showrooms in Los Angeles (and elsewhere soon) will essentially be putting such faith in the car's "Super Cruise" -- as in self-driving -- system.

But since we will all eventually share the road with those who buy self-driving cars, we all have a stake in making certain they don't malfunction. Lives literally depend on it.

General Motors said its "Super Cruise" Cadillac is not fully self driving, but semiautonomous. The "Super Cruise" will operate only on limited-access freeways.

The idea is the car's computer system will keep the vehicle centered in its lane and a safe distance from vehicles in front of it, relying on cameras and radar sensors and high-tech maps to guide it.

Drivers won't have to keep their hands on the steering wheel, but the system will monitor their facial features to make sure they are paying attention to the road and are ready to take over driving in an emergency, according to The Associated Press.

Hmmm.

A great many drivers who don't have the "Super Cruise" feature on their vehicles are already challenged when it comes to paying attention to the road. Human nature is, frankly, often more suspect than computer software.

Given that, we would hope General Motors and the federal government would closely monitor the rollout of these new Super Caddy cars to ensure that it is actually safe in real-world conditions such as California freeways.

Earlier this year, Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order allowing road tests of self-driving cars in this state. The state oversight is welcome.

While there are many potential positives to driverless technology, there could be some drawbacks. It could further clog the already overloaded highways in big cities, create environmental problems with more vehicles on the road and, frankly, create more traffic crashes.

Ultimately, it's important not to allow the zeal for exciting technology (and money) to cloud good judgment.

Cadillac had planned on debuting its semi-self-driving car last year, but it was delayed a year after a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S in which the driver was using that carmaker's Autopilot system. GM officials opted to refine its system after the deadly crash.

Let's hope they got it right. The tolerance for error in this grand experiment is very, very small.

©2017 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.