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I don't want my car to tell me what to do. But I would like it to drive me around
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

I bought a new car this year. Sometimes when I’m driving, it pops up a little notification in the dash that says “Consider taking a break.” It’s accompanied by a little digitized picture of a coffee cup. 

The first time this happened, I was driving home from North Carolina and had been on the road for a while. I found it a little odd — and at least a little annoying — and thought to myself that I was just fine to continue driving; we’d be home in about an hour.

The next time it happened, I hadn’t been in the car that long. But I was trying to eat a chicken biscuit. 

I know the car can sense when my hands are on the wheel and when I drift out of the lanes, so one of those two things or both must have happened too frequently, and my car decided I wasn’t being the safest driver.

Then on a recent drive home from the mountains, the car repeatedly told me to take a break. It was an hourlong drive. It must have told me 10 times to take a break. What does it know that I don’t? I’m pretty sure I’m still smarter than this car.

But maybe I’m not smarter than a Tesla.

My brother-in-law has one of those. I rode with him and my sister to the beach over the summer and witnessed the car in auto-pilot. A large screen displays the other cars around his, and the Tesla can sense when it should change lanes or when another car is coming up too fast behind it to safely make that lane change. Sometimes the car is smarter than the driver in that regard, or at least it has better vision.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls this type of driving “partial automation.”

This kind of technology is likely to change the driving landscape at some point in the near future.

The NHTSA reports that 94% of serious crashes are due to human error, and though driverless cars aren’t yet reality on our busy Hall County roads, there are some compelling reasons to continue exploring the technology. In Hall County in 2017, the most recent numbers available from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, 31 people died on our roads. 

Of course, cyber security and other issues offer some compelling reasons to be hesitant as well.

In any case, I believe the technology is coming eventually and will disrupt how we do business, how we get places and how we spend our time. 

Logistics is big business and is wading into these waters already. Uber had a self-driving truck deliver a load of beer back in 2016.

Uber is also looking at soon testing driverless cars in Dallas. Imagine a world in which you don’t own a car but instead hitch a ride to work in a driverless Uber. My car sits in a garage or a parking lot most of the day; it’s a rather expensive hunk of metal that I’d forego if I had a cheaper, reliable driverless Uber.

And in that driverless Uber, I am hoping to find some extra time.

Seats could face each other in a truly driverless car allowing riders to read the news on their phones, apply their makeup or eat their chicken biscuit — all things drivers shouldn’t be doing. 

Thankfully my house isn’t far from The Times office so I don’t lose a lot of time in my commute. That’s certainly not true for many. 

But transitioning to fully automated driverless cars gives up a lot of control to a machine.

Riding with my sister and brother-in-law to the beach, his Tesla made a lot of smart choices. And then one time it whipped us off to the right where it should have slowly exited the interstate. He grabbed the steering wheel and quickly averted danger. And I lost some faith in his fancy car.

It’s hard to put a lot of faith in technology. Any of us who has ever used a computer can attest to that. I hope my driverless car won’t need to update and restart as I’m leaving the house, late for an appointment. 

And I sure hope the cars would be made better than my robot vacuum or even the coffee maker on my counter. The vacuum drives around and around trying to figure out where it started. And my coffee maker recently started grinding beans in the middle of the night — it doesn’t even have a timer.

Technology malfunctions. The question is, do we prefer that over human error? Which one is safer? And how much does that matter? 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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