Personally, I'm Not Interested in Self-Driving Cars Having 'the Biggest Impact'

·4-min read
Photo credit: helivideo - Getty Images
Photo credit: helivideo - Getty Images

I largely have come to grips with the fact that, for the rest of my days, I’m going to be running a few lengths up the track behind innovation. I’ve made peace with the fact that I will have a few miserably frustrating days learning how to use all the stuff that’s supposed to make my life easier. But there are some innovations to which I have sworn eternal hostility on the altar of god. Bitcoin, for example. I don’t care that the new mayor of New York is a fan. Neither do I care that Senator Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, crypto’s biggest fan in the Congress, currently sits on the Senate Banking Committee. Nothing will convince me to listen to someone say, “Hey, I invented new money!” with anything but the most profound skepticism. I may be an only child, but my poppa didn’t raise no fools.

The other one is self-driving cars. And CNN has come up with enough supporting evidence to make me feel very confident in my decision.

When a dozen small children crossed in front of our Tesla with "full self-driving," I had good reason to be nervous. I'd spent my morning so far in the backseat of the Model 3 using "full self-driving," the system that Tesla says will change the world by enabling safe and reliable autonomous vehicles. I'd watched the software nearly crash into a construction site, try to turn into a stopped truck and attempt to drive down the wrong side of the road. Angry drivers blared their horns as the system hesitated, sometimes right in the middle of an intersection.

Clearly, this beast is suicidal, and I have no intention of having it take me with it.

The Model 3's "full self-driving" needed plenty of human interventions to protect us and everyone else on the road. Sometimes that meant tapping the brake to turn off the software, so that it wouldn't try to drive around a car in front of us. Other times we quickly jerked the wheel to avoid a crash. (Tesla tells drivers to pay constant attention to the road, and be prepared to act immediately.)

Let’s see. The car will drive itself, except when it starts making mistakes and then the human driver has to step in to avoid disaster. All that being true, then what in the name of A.J. Foyt is the point of a “self-driving” car?

Brooklyn offered us a chance to see how close Tesla's autonomous driving software was to replacing human drivers. It's the sort of place where humans drive because they have to, not the sort of place selected by a corporate headquarters. It's where self-driving cars might have the biggest impact.

I have a lot of friends who live in Brooklyn. I hope to see them all again one day. And I think our reporter friend here might want to find a better turn of phrase than “the biggest impact.”

"Full self-driving" sometimes makes jerky turns. The wheel starts to turn, but then shifts back, before again turning in its intended direction. The staggered turns generally don't seem to be a bother on sweeping suburban curves, but in a dense city largely built before cars, it’s uncomfortable. There's also the braking, which can feel random.

So all that money basically went to creating an AI system that imitates every senior driving to the Old Country Buffet in Florida on Sunday morning after church. Does the right blinker automatically stay on?

Ultimately, seeing "full self-driving" in Brooklyn reminded me of the importance of the finer points of driving, which is tough for an artificial intelligence powered car to master. Things like pulling slightly into the intersection on a narrow road to make a left turn, so traffic behind you has room to pull around. "Full self-driving" just sat in place as frustrated drivers behind us honked.

Besides, dammit, it’s 2021 and I’m supposed to have a flying car by now. Instead, I’m supposed to be satisfied with a robot chauffeur who drives like a drunk one minute, and an octogenarian hungry for waffles the next? So many movies lied to me.

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