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Is car that can drive itself a good idea?

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By Larry Printz
Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

As the microprocessor has invaded automobiles, engineers have used them to create safety features that protect drivers from poor judgment.

Sensors at each wheel can detect when one wheel is spinning at a rate different from the others. A computer will then regulate the offending tire's rotation to regain traction. Cameras and radars are used to alert drivers to unseen pedestrians or traffic crossing their car's path or help drivers park. These same systems can prepare for a crash by alerting the driver to brake and, if there's no response, intervene, stopping the car entirely.

It goes even further.

Some of these systems can read markings in the road ahead. If your car goes over a line and into another lane of traffic, a computer can steer the car back into your lane without your help. This is easily accomplished, as most cars use electric power steering, rather than hydraulic. Such systems are just becoming available, most notably on the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class for 2014.

You can see where this is headed: Someday, a car will be able to drive itself. And getting there will take longer than you think.

A few months ago, I was test-driving a Lincoln MKZ with a push-button starter and a keyless entry fob. However, halfway through the week-long test, the car didn't recognize that the fob was inside the car and wouldn't start — even though the fob was resting in the center console. There was no owner's manual in the car — this was a pilot production vehicle — so there was no way to get the car started.

I am sure many of you have similar tales of such electronic gremlins; that's why I believe that while driverless cars will become reality, such gremlins will delay their arrival.

Consider how long it takes for your new car's infotainment system to figure out a navigation route, or recognize that your iPod has been plugged in. Now, think of how fast a driver has to react if some nimrod suddenly cuts in front. Can the car react in time? What about all of those roads without lane markings, or ones that are barely visible?

Proponents say that in such instances, a driver can intercede. But what if they're checking email, surfing the web or watching a Seinfeld rerun? Such activities would be feasible if you didn't have to pay attention to driving most of the time. And, if drivers could intercede in time, will they have the skill to prevent an accident? Their abilities might be rusty if they no longer pay attention 99 percent of the time.

This would, in turn, be a bonanza for trial lawyers and, eventually, legislators.

No one has ever gotten poor overestimating the laziness of Americans, which is why the breathless announcements about cars that can drive themselves have grabbed our attention.

But even if something is possible, that doesn't mean that it's practicable — at least in the near term. After all, an automaker's test track or a limited run down a highway is not the real world and the millions of drivers who ply it.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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