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Autonomous Cars Aren't Really Autonomous If You Have to Monitor Them

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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2016

I think it's time we address the biggest problem with autonomous cars. To be clear, I'm not referring to the fact that our roads will soon be overflowing with futuristic robots like in some sort of 1950s end-of-days science fiction movie -- except they have sunroofs. Actually, I'm OK with that. What I am talking about is the fact that most of them aren't really autonomous.

Allow me to explain what I mean: In virtually all the autonomous driving systems that are currently being developed, including Tesla's highly impressive Autopilot feature, you set the car to "autonomous," and it happily works the brake pedal, the gas pedal and the steering wheel, as if there is an invisible human sitting on your lap who's a better driver than you.

Except ... there's a problem: It only does this up to a point before you must retake the wheel. This is called Level 3 autonomy, on a scale of zero to five, with zero being when you drive the car yourself with absolutely no autonomy (except maybe it automatically switches to the next track on your iPod when the current one is over) and five being when the car is completely autonomous and you can take a nap in the back seat. With Level 3 autonomy, though, you'll eventually be required to take over and drive the car yourself.

Admittedly, you only have to take over in rare circumstances, like if you're in severely bad weather, or when there's snow on the ground, or if the road quality is so bad that the lane lines are obscured, or if you've taken some off-road excursion and the car has no idea where you are, or if one of the autonomous driving sensors is blocked or covered or damaged. But the point is, it can happen. And when it does, your autonomous car is suddenly no longer autonomous.

So what's the point?

Here's what I'm talking about: In my ideal world, I get in my autonomous car to drive to work, and I spend the entire trip eating breakfast and reading the news on some sort of electronic device that would confuse my parents. I never once look at the road, unless I happen to pass some loser in a crappy old nonautonomous car, a "manual," as I will call it, such as a Pontiac Sunfire. That's my vision of a truly autonomous car.

And it doesn't have to stop with reading the news or eating breakfast. You like to exercise before work? Why not sleep an extra 30 minutes and hop into your autonomous car, which is fitted with an exercise bike and weights so you can do your morning exercise routine on your way to work? Need to bring your dog to the vet? Why not stick him in your autonomous car, set the destination, and send him on his way while you sit back on the couch and watch that episode of "The West Wing" when Josh finally kisses Donna?

I'll tell you why: because in a modern autonomous car, you have to actually sit there and make sure the computer does everything right. So instead of getting all these great benefits from autonomous driving, like being able to watch television at home while your dog is chauffeured throughout the city, it turns out that the primary benefit of these Level 3 autonomous cars once you turn on the autonomous setting is that you can put your hands on your lap instead of the steering wheel.

And it's worse than that, because the car is really only capable of driving in conditions that suit it perfectly. You know when I most need my autonomous car to drive for me? In torrential rainstorms, heavy fog or dangerous snow and ice. You know when an autonomous car refuses to drive for me? In torrential rainstorms, heavy fog or dangerous snow and ice. This would be like going to the doctor for a sore throat and he treats you, then returning to the doctor because you've stuck an ice pick in your big toe and he says: "Good luck with that!"

In other words, you can only trust a modern autonomous car to drive in the best of circumstances, in perfect weather -- and even then, you have to sit there and monitor it, or else you could be at fault if it smashes into something.

The future is here ... and it's kind of disappointing.

So at the moment, I'm not really convinced of the whole autonomous car thing, and I don't think I will be until I can do whatever I want behind the wheel, such as watching "Forrest Gump" in its entirety and weeping like a baby when (SPOILER!) Jenny dies at the end. Once that happens, I will move into full support of these robots prowling our streets at will -- so will my dog.

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Autonomous Cars Aren't Really Autonomous If You Have to Monitor Them - Autotrader