Are we too stupid to drive our cars?

Have I finally descended into complete conspiracy theory madness in thinking that modern reality TV is but a short hop, skip and jump from Stephen King’s dystopian vision of our future, The Running Man? At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of innocent and somewhat naïve (but surprisingly muscular; King’s original is scrawny) Ben Richards escaping the clutches of Damon Killian (played with malevolent relish by a truly evil Richard Dawson) seemed a work of pure science fiction. After all, the harshest reality/game shows of the day involved Pat Sajak overcharging for vowels and the rallying cry of the most popular show on TV was the rather Rockwellian “where everyone knows your name.”

Fast-forward a mere quarter decade and we have Fear Factor contestants eating live worms for prizes, drunk strippers flashing boobies for Rock of Love’s Bret Michaels and Wipeout’s flabby couch potatoes trying to scurry over what has so far remained a nerf-covered obstacle course all the while being ridiculed when they back-flip off a ledge after being hit by a revolving baton shaped like a giant foam fist. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to think it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt by these shenanigans and only a little while longer before hurting said contestants, Running Man style, will actually be the point of our game shows. Science fiction has always predicated its credibility on the notion of becoming reality in some distant future. But Running Man’s denouement in which Killian justifies creating the game show to appease American viewers’ love for televised action and violence is just a little too close to reality for my tastes.

So, you’ll forgive me if I’m not exactly thrilled with our headlong rush into self-driving automobiles. For those not following the technology, we are not far off having cars where we are but passengers. Thanks to the miracle of GPS that can tell us exactly where we are (and, therefore, where the next turn will be), proximity sensors that do a fine job of noting our surroundings and computers that control virtually everything in our car — most notably the throttle, brakes and, most recently, the steering — there is absolutely no reason a car can’t drive itself. Oh, sure, right now it’s just happening in strictly controlled situations, but it won’t be long before self-driving cars will be among us. A few short years ago, none of the multi-million-dollar entrants could finish the DARPA Grand Challenge, essentially a U.S. government-sponsored rally through the Mojave Desert for driverless cars; later editions had to include urban tests with stoplights and traffic because the entrants became so good at rudimentary navigation. Google claims to have driven more than 225,300 kilometres in camera- and GPS-equipped Toyota Priuses with little to no human intervention (though all had to have a backup human driver on board).

Indeed, the engineers behind these experiments in computer-chauffeured cars are already decrying we mere humans as the weak link in the driving experience. Eliminate the “idiot behind the wheel” seems the reasoning and we can all motor along in complete, electronically controlled safety.

The question is how long will it be before said idiot isn’t allowed to drive at all? I’ll not succumb to the obvious (hey, I don’t even like Schwarzenegger) Terminator: Rise of the Machines paranoia, but how long will it be before some well-meaning politician determines that we’re all too stupid to be allowed to drive our own cars? Hell, considering the quality of driving I’ve seen around Toronto lately, I might well vote for him.

But the current automation of our cars is already annoying. Yes, rear-view cameras are a boon as anyone who’s ever run over the toddler’s tricycle (or worse) can attest. Ditto the parking assist radar systems. But our steering wheels now vibrate when we even come close to the paint stripes dividing lanes, lights flash every time someone creeps past us in the passing lane and, this week, the Lincoln MKX (see DT6) I was testing flashed bright red beacons and fog-horned dire warnings if someone so much as had the temerity to creep into my lane. God help us all if there are licensed motorists who really need such devices to be safe drivers.

And won’t it be a lot easier for Machiavellian safety nannies — I’m talking to you, MP Julian Fantino — to regulate our driving if a computer is controlling our car? With foot nowhere near gas pedal, the problem of those nasty stunt drivers the former OPP Commissioner found so distasteful is easily “supervised.”

Despite some obviously over-the-top prognostications, I don’t think the world is going to devolve into some Judgment Day scenario where our cars take over our lives (but, if they do, I hope we’re not relying on Linda Hamilton to save the day, no matter how buff her biceps are). But, is this the motoring future we want for ourselves? Do we really want to devolve into mindless automatons who can’t even be bothered to drive a simple automobile?

Photograph by: Toyota, handout