There are laws in many states forbidding “distracted” driving – but what about the laws that encourage it?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given GM – and presumably, other car companies, too – the go ahead to offer cars that can drive themselves for extended periods while the “driver” doesn’t.
GM’s system – marketed as SuperCruise – will be available next year in certain Cadillac models, including the CT6 sedan. It’s an advanced form of adaptive or “intelligent” cruise control that steers the car as well as maintains speed – accelerating and braking as needed with the ebb and flow of traffic, no input required from the “driver.”
Who can distract himself with other things.
Which is, of course, the only reason for bothering with this technology. The “driver” doesn’t have to. He can nod off. Text. Space out. Have a chat with his passengers. Maybe watch a YouTube video. That’s the sell.
But if the person behind the wheel (assuming there’s still a wheel) is also still expected to pay attention to the road and be ready to step in as the driver, it kind of defeats the point – doesn’t it?
It’s a hilarious juxtaposition, given the endless lecturing about “safety” emanating from NHTSA – the federal busybody-at-gunpoint agency that, somehow, acquired a parental interest (and parental rights) in every adult American.
Naturally, GM’s SuperCruise is fitted with a bevy of bells and whistles that are supposed to rouse the asleep-at-the-wheel “driver” when it becomes necessary for him to … drive. If the “driver” doesn’t wake up – perhaps he is sleeping too soundly and fails to notice the bells and whistles – the car will automatically turn on its emergency blinkers and slow itself down.
This will probably not be much help if a split-second intervention becomes necessary. As, for example, when a self-driving Tesla drove itself broadside into a big rig that had unexpectedly turned in its path. Which the Tesla’s “driver” didn’t notice in time.
And there, as the saying goes, is the rub.
A driver either is – or he isn’t.
There is no in-between.
It is not a part-time job.
To whatever extent a car drives itself, the driver is necessarily less involved. Less is expected of him. He is encouraged to be passive, inattentive.
This has been in process for a long time. Anti-lock brakes, for instance. They have been standard in pretty much all cars built since the late 1990s. Before ABS, drivers learned to fear skids – and loss of control. They tended to maintain a safe following distance, the motivation being that if you didn’t and the car up ahead slowed unexpectedly and suddenly, it was probable that you’d skid right into his trunk.
With ABS, people know the car won’t skid – and so tend to tailgate more than they used to and to drive not so much aggressively (a smear word used to bunch fast drivers who can drive in with reckless drivers, who can’t) as they do foolishly. See, for instance, all the jacked-up 4×4 SUVs in the ditch after a snowstorm. They over-drive the physics of traction, expecting the ABS (and traction control, there’s another one) to keep them on the road.
One of the limits human beings have is reaction time. It takes “x” seconds for a human to notice a change in the driving environment and then react to it. There is a lag even when the human is paying very close attention – for example, a drag racer waiting for the Christmas tree to go green. But reaction times increase when the driver isn’t paying attention.
Imagine our hypothetical drag racer nodding off or texting or fiddling with the stereo’s buttons instead of watching for the green. What do you suppose will happen to his reaction time?
It’s no different on the street.
A driver who has turned over the driving to SuperCruise (or whatever) will by definition be paying less attention, so when something happens that requires his attention, the time it takes for him to become aware of that thing and react to it will necessarily increase. If that thing is something that requires a split-second decision (these things happen out on the road sometimes) the extra second or four it takes for our “driver” to resume the helm may be a second or four too late.
This, arguably, constitutes a threat to the safety of everyone – not just the no-longer-driving “driver.”
Yet NHTSA – Uncle’s “agency” charged with ensuring the “safety” of all us children, who are too weak-brained to know what’s good for us, let alone do it without being prodded – takes no issue with technology that, in a very real sense, is far more a threat to people’s safety than allowing them to disable their mandated-by-government air bags.
If I crash my airbag-defeated car, I harm no one but myself. But if a “driver” who isn’t – because he’s turned the job over to SuperCruise – fails to notice the light up ahead’s gone red and T-bones me because he didn’t take over in time – then I have been hurt by him.
More accurately, by Uncle – by NHTSA. Which took the decision to put my “safety” at risk (and yours, too) because the regulatory ayatollahs within have decided it’s ok to do so in order to encourage self-driving car technology, which the regulatory ayatollahs favor.
They do not favor – will not allow – me (or you) to drive around without our seatbelts on, or ride a motorcycle without a helmet – neither thing having any effect on other people, neither thing putting any other person at risk of harm.
But technology that encourages passive/distracted – and delayed reaction – driving?
The first person whose car gets smashed as a result of this should not only have a tort claim against the “driver” but also against GM and – much more so – NHTSA, which eggs this business on.
But you cannot sue the regulatory ayatollahs (nor the enforcers of their fatwas) personally for the harms they cause. Because of a neat doctrine they invented called sovereign immunity.
That needs to change.
If I can be sued for damages because I nodded off at the wheel and my car plows into a minivan carrying a bunch of kids, why, pray, should the non-driver of a self-driving minivan who fails to react in time and plows into me be immune from the same sort of liability?
Why shouldn’t the company that made such a car be liable? How about the regulatory ayatollahs who encouraged the technology? Who consciously chose to put our lives at risk for the sake of their agenda?
And they ask me why I drink… .
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