By Jeff Gilbert

DETROIT (WWJ) – As we prepare for an upcoming WWJ Business Breakfast on self-driving cars (save the date: June 5), my head is filled with questions about this new technology.

I just returned from an Automotive Press Association lunch on the subject. That gave clarity to those questions, and added some new ones.

Chris Barroni-Bird, a long time auto industry researcher, now at Qualcomm, echoed my biggest concern about self-driving cars. Will they become conveyances for people who are too tired—or too drunk to drive?

If we could make the technology absolutely foolproof, it’s not a problem. I’ve yet to drive a foolproof car, and the technology I love (smart phones, tablets, laptops) fails me on a daily basis.

That means you still need to be able to take over any self-driving car from time to time, and it could be at a moment’s notice when a sensor fails, or there is some incident that the car can’t quite deal with. So, even when the car is driving itself, you still need to pay attention.

That’s not always easy to do. Imagine yourself on a dark lonely highway, comfortable seat in a warm car that’s driving itself. I’m dozing off writing this.

But, won’t the law require you to stay awake and pay attention? The law requires you to obey the speed limit today. Take a drive along I-696 sometimes.

Even assuming you want to stay awake, it could be tough. I want to stay awake at church. I’ll leave it right there.

At the Automotive Press Association Panel, there was suggestion of technology to monitor driver’s eyes, set off an alarm to keep the driver awake, or safely stop the car on the side of the road, if there’s nobody to take control in an emergency.

This adds more expense to an expensive system. Lots of people are priced out of new cars now. This could raise the bar even more.

And what if part of your system needed repair. One of the people at our lunch table admitted that they had been driving with a faulty tire pressure monitor for a year. Could we see people with autonomous cars driving with a sensor that’s not working properly? Hey, its only job is to detect pedestrians, and I can watch out for them…zzzzzzz.

Just bringing up some things to think about.

Airplanes have auto pilots. But, backing up those auto pilot systems is a real pilot with years of real world experience, and trained maintenance crews that keep the systems running.

It was brought up at our meeting that it will be the younger generation that creates the market for self-driving cars. That’s because they would rather tweet, text and post Facebook messages behind the wheel.

Ponder this for a second. Will young people who are used to leaving the driving to their cars be able to deal with it when the system tells them to take control, now? Yes, they’ve had driver training. But, I just told my son that driver training equips you to handle the car. It’s after driver training that you learn how to deal with the rare, but important emergencies, which can mean life or death on the road.

Then there’s how this may affect design. We heard of interesting ways to hide technology that’s now on the outside of test vehicles. That could change looks.

Then, long-term, do cars that drive themselves need windows? If they don’t crash, do they need airbags, seat belts or high strength steel? A lot of this is too far out in the future to even ponder, and may be a bit too utopian, even then. When I’m hurling down the freeway at 70 miles per hour, I like to be protected.

And here’s something I never thought of. Will you give up your privacy and independence in exchange for a safer and easier to use form of transportation? After all, the sensors on a self-driving car can also be used to tell authorities were you are. Lots of people saw this as a fair trade. Look at some of today’s political debate, and you could see this as a big hot potato.

And, we save the 800 pound gorilla for last: The legal system. We can add my business, the news media, into the mix.
You will see lawsuits. You will see investigative reports on “highway killers.”

Toyota just settled more than a billion dollars worth of lawsuits from its sudden acceleration recalls. And even though NASA cleared the electronics systems in Toyota’s vehicles, some critics continued to raise concerns.

Will NASA have to give its blessing to self-driving cars?

There are a lot of questions to be pondered. If history is any guide, there will be surprises along the way.

We had a great discussion on this subject at our first business breakfast on this subject last fall. I invite you to join us June 5 for part two.

Details to come soon.

Connect with Jeff Gilbert
Twitter: @jefferygilbert

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