SALT LAKE CITY —
When it comes to self-driving cars, we’re in that awkward in-between stage.
Fancy new cars lull us to sleep as they keep themselves centered in the lane and adjust their speeds to traffic, leaving us free to stare at the countryside or do whatever.
But “whatever” won’t hold up as an excuse in court.
Get into an accident and watch how quickly the manufacturer argues it was your fault for not grabbing the wheel or braking soon enough.
Last year, a man in Florida thought he could watch Harry Potter while his car did the driving. He died when his Tesla failed to see a white truck against a bright spring sky. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually ruled Tesla’s software functioned properly.
Drivers, perhaps bored out of their minds while watching their cars do the driving, must be ready to jump in the moment something goes wrong — at least until this awkward stage is over, and that may be a while.
University of Utah researchers soon will study exactly what this semi-autonomous world of motoring does to the brain, which might help manufacturers figure out how to keep you engaged.
Assistant professor Francesco Biondi and associate professor Joel Cooper, both of the psychology department, sat down with me to explain how this will work. Beginning in a few weeks, people who signed up as guinea pigs will begin driving to Wendover and back in a Tesla, wearing caps that monitor brain waves and contraptions that track heartbeats. For part of the trip, they will use every automated function the car has to offer. For the other part, they will drive manually, the way people have been doing it since the late 19th century.
“The idea is to see, after having the car take over some of the driving, how your alertness level changes — if you become less aware or more aware of the traffic around you,” Biondi said.
The study will be in collaboration with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. They picked I-80 to Wendover for obvious reasons. The road is long, straight and, unless you are strangely energized by mirages shimmering above salt flats, incredibly boring.
I can predict what will happen during those autonomous hours. Unless the Tesla is equipped with a voice that plays “I spy with my little eye” or with a Diet Coke dispenser, the drivers will start wishing Utah law allowed them to text a friend.
The hope is they aren’t dreaming this as their heads slump toward their armrests.
In an ironic twist, Cooper said cellphones might be part of the answer to staying awake. “In cars where you’re in the control, distraction is the problem. In cars where the vehicle is in control, the distraction could be the solution,” he said.
I can see the public service announcements now, “Text and drive to stay alive!”
Unless, of course, you’re still driving an old-fashioned car.
If that sounds confusing, get used to it. Not only will the owners of these cutting-edge vehicles be guinea pigs, of sorts, for a while, lawmakers in 50 states will be scrambling to keep up and, one hopes, not getting in the way.
The nation has survived worse. The Detroit News recently described the early days of the automobile as a time when “there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver's education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, drivers' licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn was not known, and drinking and driving was not considered a serious crime.”
That may sound like parts of State Street on a Saturday night, but the truth is things have improved a lot since then.
It’s also true that autonomous cars hold a lot of promise for an even better future.
Biondi has a six-point scale to that promised land. We’re on level two, where cars do a lot of work but drivers must stay attentive.
The gulf between this and level three, where drivers no longer need to be constantly alert, is a “Grand Canyon chasm.”
In other words, it’s going to be a while, folks. We had all better figure out how to stay awake.