Leonard Pitts Jr.: Self-driving cars not so bad

October 1, 2012 

This was going to be a rant.

Then I thought about it, which was a mistake.

You want to flambé the target of your ire, but you find yourself conscience-bound to admit: Maybe your target has a point.

Such was the case last week when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law legalizing self-driving cars in the Golden State.

California joins Nevada in allowing Google and other manufacturers to test "autonomous" cars on its roads. The law in both states requires that a human driver be onboard to take over in the event of emergency but the cars, which use a combination of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence to stay between the lines, apparently don't need the help.

If you are a kid -- "kid" herein being defined as anyone under 35 years of age -- you're probably wondering what the fuss is. The notion of self-driving cars probably sounds good to you.

If you are a grown-up -- defined as someone over 35 -- you understand quite well what the fuss is. Bad enough you now use a computer to order a pizza, and you have to interface with a machine to buy your groceries, pay your parking or communicate with your kids. Bad enough you have to press one for English, then press two for the service department, then press three if you are over 6 feet tall, then press four if you are left-

handed, then press five and hop on one foot if your favorite color is red, then listen to 15 minutes of Kenny G before you are allowed to speak with a human being. Now the machines will drive our cars, too?

When "The Terminator" came out in 1984, it postulated an apocalyptic future wherein machines had risen against us. Having arrived in that future, we now know better. The machines won't kill us. But they are removing us from the equation.

Anybody remember a little thing called the human touch? Me neither.

That was going to be the basis of the aforementioned rant. Then I made the aforementioned mistake.

Its backers say autonomous cars will reduce traffic jams because they will communicate with one another to use the highways more efficiently. Because they will spend less time in gridlock, they will lessen the emission of harmful pollutants. And they will give greater personal mobility to those who, because of disability or age, cannot drive.

Maybe you could imagine a software error leading to a car full of nuns plowing into a busload of orphans while a computer screen shows an hourglass icon. But even if that happened once a month, it would still fall far short of the more than 32,000 traffic fatalities compiled each year by human beings. And it won't happen once a month.

Google tells CNN its cars have racked up 300,000 miles with only one accident. And that happened with a human driver in control.

This is where my rant went south. How do you rant against fewer traffic jams, greater mobility, less pollution and more safety? Now I'm too depressed to rant, too depressed to do anything except contemplate my -- our -- looming obsolescence.

There is one bright spot. They haven't come up with a machine that can write a whiny newspaper column. Yet.

E-mail: lpitts@miamiherald.com.

THE MIAMI HERALD

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service