Self-Steering Cars in Texas? As If We Didn't Already Have Driving Problems

A bill making its way through the Texas Senate that would create a pilot program in the Lone Star State encouraging the development of cars that drive themselves. This very first sentence sounds like something read on a news broadcast during a flashback in a futuristic film about machines taking over the world. Oh, sure, it started innocently enough. We wanted to spend more time fixing our hair and texting while driving, so we invented autonomous cars to handle the driving for us. Little did we know they would TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

The truth is that this is more science than science fiction. The technology to assist drivers with something many Texans find sacred -- steering a giant pile of metal while hurtling at breakneck speeds down a concrete road filled with other giant piles of metal driven by people more interested in Facebook than the highway -- is already part of many vehicles that have assisted parallel parking (finally, no more failing that on a drivers' test) and warnings when other cars are in your blind spot.

But, having the whole car drive itself (as Google introduced a couple years ago to help them expedite and save money on those crazy cars that drive around mapping every street for Google Maps) could be a thing of the future. Still, is that a good idea?

We already have plenty of driving problems.

We love to get behind the wheel in Texas. It is woven into our DNA from a very early age. The lack of quality public transportation in most of our cities combined with the sheer size of the state -- nevermind that whole freedom-loving independence thing -- only increases our desire to drive. As a result, we have millions of people on the roads every day, many of them more interested in the destination -- or the iPhone -- than the journey.

It could be argued that self-steering vehicles would help to alleviate some of those issues by taking the control out of our hands. That might be true if we could guarantee that the automated cars would always work perfectly. If you have ever owned a car, you know thinking it will always run correctly is folly. And if it did decide to stop working, say, in the middle of Interstate 10 during morning rush hour, the jerk sleeping with the seat leaned back behind the wheel (don't think that won't happen) won't be able to prevent an accident.

Aren't we distracted enough?

My problem is that we are trying to solve the problem of distracted drivers by simply eliminating their job. If you think people are distracted now -- I once saw a woman driving down the West Loop, steering with her knees while she talked on the phone AND put on mascara on -- wait until a machine is driving for them.

Instead of taking away responsibility, there needs to be an even greater amount of it put on anyone behind the wheel. There are laws in place to stop both text and talking (without a hands free device) while driving in many places. Those activities are often as dangerous as drunk driving, which we began taking seriously enough in the '80s to cut the numbers dramatically. I'd rather a driver forced to pay attention than one who hands the keys over to a computer allowing them to check out completely.

Do we really want a computer making all those decisions?

And while we are talking about computers, I'm not certain any of us is ready for a world where machines do all the driving. There are so many decisions that are made in the moment while driving, things that only humans can truly predict, mostly because other humans behind the wheels of other cars don't drive logically. We might be the only ones who can figure that out.

I get that automation could be turned off in an instant as easily as we disengage cruise control, but that again requires an awareness we may not have if someone (or something) else is doing the driving. Who stares out the front window at traffic when taking a ride in a cab, for example?

I'm all for futuristic inventions and ideas. I love technology. But, just as much as I think flying cars would be awesome and also a complete and utter disaster, the same goes for self-driving cars. Frankly, the technology isn't the issue so much as the humans controlling it.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke