Something strange – and dangerous – happened to me the other day while I was out test-driving a new Toyota Prius.
The car decided it was time to stop. In the middle of the road. For reasons known only to the emperor.
Or the software.
I found myself parked in the middle of the road – with traffic not parked coming up behind me, fast. Other drivers were probably were wondering why that idiot in the Prius had decided to stop in the middle of the road.
But it wasn’t me. I was just the meatsack behind the wheel. The Prius was driving.
Like almost all 2019 model year cars, the Prius has something called automated emergency braking. It’s a saaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety system meant to correct for distracted driving – or just slow-to-react driving.
Sensors embedded in the car’s front and rear bumpers scan the perimeter and if they see something in your path that you don’t – or you haven’t applied the brakes in time to avoid hitting whatever it is – the system will automatically brake for you.
That’s the Cliffs Notes version of how it’s supposed to work, at any rate.
The other day, it worked . . . differently.
In a way that Toyota – and not just Toyota – may not have anticipated.
But should have.
This instance of non-emergency braking may have occurred because we had an ice storm the previous day. Everything got shellacked with a coating of the stuff.
Those sensors embedded in the bodywork were probably still covered by ice, giving the car a case of temporary glaucoma. As a result, the Prius may have thought it saw something in the road – and slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting what wasn’t there.
To prevent this from happening, those sensors must be kept clean. Especially if there’s no way to turn off the saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety system tied into those sensors. Which in most cases, there isn’t.
But people haven’t been advised about keeping those sensors clean – at least, not strongly enough. There is info to that effect in the fine print of the owner’s manuals of most cars quipped with this feature, including the Prius.
But even if one is diligent about checking (and cleaning off) the car’s various embedded sensors before one begins driving, what about while one is driving?
It was sunny and clear when you left the house – or are on your way home from work – but mid-trip, it begins to snow or sleet . . . and the car’s entire front end (where those sensors are embedded) gets coated by slush/slurry/road spray . . . and the car can no longer see very well or even not at all.
There aren’t warning icons/buzzers in the gauge cluster of any new car equipped with this system (so far as I have been able to determine) to let you know that it’s time to stop and wipe off the bumpers because the car can no longer see – and (like your grandma, who also can’t see very well anymore) might just do something unpredictable.
This is arguably . . . dangerous.
I can now describe what the dashboard of a Prius tastes like. Needs A1.
And I wasn’t able to countermand the car. Dead stop – no matter how hard I pressed down on the gas. The car wouldn’t budge for several seconds that felt much longer than that as I eyed the car in the rearview getting bigger and bigger as it got closer and closer.
Luckily for me, he wasn’t tailgating.
Had he been, an accident would have been all-but-certain. The Prius would have been accordionized.
It’s another example of saaaaaaaaaaafety technology that brings with it unpleasant – potentially lethal – unintended consequences; new risks which didn’t exist before. Other examples include air bags, which can kill or maim you as well as save you, depending on when – and how – they go off.
What if I had been on a busy Interstate highway with a speed limit of 70 instead of a lazy country road with a speed limit of 45? What if an eighteen-wheeler had been behind me doing 70 when the Prius erroneously decided it was time to jam on the brakes?
Leaving aside my gruesome death – who would get the blame for it?
Better call Saul.
Automated emergency braking is one of several technologies now commonly available (and often standard equipment) in new cars that pre-empt the driver’s decisions – which opens up a yuge can of legal worms.
Another one of these saaaaaaaaaaaaafety technologies is lane keep assist, which countersteers (using electric motors connected to the steering gear) when the car thinks the driver is veering out of his intended lane of travel.
The problem is that sometimes the driver is leaving his lane on purpose – perhaps to avoid something that actually is in the road (a big pothole, maybe a dog) or during a passing attempt. If the driver doesn’t use his turn signal – not a high priority during an emergency maneuver – the system assumes it needs to correct – and the car fights the driver’s steering inputs.
This is arguably not very saaaaaaaaaafe, either.
It’s also incredibly annoying to be parented by your car.
And there’s more – and worse – coming.
I just got finished test-driving the new (2019) Subaru Forester. It comes with a facial recognition saaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety system that scans your face (and eyes) as you drive and if the car thinks it sees you take your eyes off the road – even when you haven’t or just briefly – it will poke you in the ribs – electronically and audibly – via a buzzer/warning light in the dashboard.
We’re being systematically pushed out of the driver’s seat while we’re still in it. And while were still technically (and legally) responsible for whatever the car does.
Strange days, indeed.
. . .
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