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My bossy car: Will 'smart car' features kill the joy of driving?

By Emmet Pierce Posted : 03/08/2011

Smart car technologyFor decades, science fiction writers have fantasized about cars that can drive themselves. That fantasy quickly is becoming a reality.

More vehicles now have "smart car" features, such as:

  • Brakes that activate if you approach an object
  • Electronic stability control systems that improve handling by preventing skids
  • Technology that answers text messages so you can keep your eyes on the road
  • Radar that extends your awareness of other vehicles and objects
  • A system that warns you if a collision is likely, based on your speed and proximity to other vehicles 
  • Adaptive cruise control that adjusts speed to keep a safe distance between vehicles
  • Sensors that help you navigate into parallel parking spaces

Some futurists predict a day when technology will connect intelligent vehicles with high-tech highways to provide a seamless flow of traffic.

Google also has been working on self-driving cars that use artificial-intelligence software. Still years from commercial production, the prototypes have shown promise. Seven Google test cars have driven 1,000 miles without a human in control.  

Such cars could open up new transportation possibilities for people who are disabled or otherwise unable to drive. It's even possible that "smart car" technology could lead to cheap car insurance rates.

But will all these changes steal the fun from driving?

More free time, less road rage?

Randal O'Toole, author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It," has studied the way people navigate through traffic. He acknowledges that some people have told him they would miss the experience of controlling their own car.

But he thinks most of us will welcome cars that assume more driving responsibilities.

"When I point out that they can do many other productive and interesting things when the car steers itself, their eyes light up and they realize that could be a good thing," he says.

Drivers "will try these things, find they like them, and then use them more and more," he says. Devices that make cars easier to drive "are just too convenient for people to ignore."

Samuel Staley, director of urban growth and land-use policy at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit public policy organization in Los Angeles, has no qualms about surrendering control of cars to computers. They almost certainly will do a better job of driving than humans, he asserts.

"It does minimize the human error involved in driving, which is one of the biggest issues in causing accidents," he says. "If they get to the point where they can drive themselves, the safety benefits are substantial."

"Smart car" technology also may help keep drunk drivers off the road, says Brenda Frachiseur, assistant state executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in California.

"MADD is a big proponent of advanced technology in vehicles," she says. "We have embraced the whole idea of automated safety features, devices that could actually tell if a drunk driver was on board. The technology exists, it just hasn't been implemented in vehicles.”

Driver alcohol-detection systems currently being developed use sensors that measure blood alcohol content through the skin. Breath-analyzer systems that prevent cars from starting if the driver is intoxicated already are in use. They are sometimes court-ordered for people convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Where are the car insurance discounts?

Consumers likely would welcome high-tech safety features in cars if they result in discounts and good car insurance rates. David Snyder, vice president and associate general counsel for the American Insurance Association, says this has not yet occurred on a large scale.

"I have not seen much evidence of any widespread discounts," he says. "One thing we urge all buyers to do is to query agents about what discounts are available. They should check with their insurance agent before they buy the car."

Generally, insurers are cautious and slow to create new auto insurance discounts for devices that reduce risks, says Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a nonprofit organization that provides information to insurance consumers.

Peter Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, says auto insurance discounts sometimes are offered for safety devices. However, discounts are usually discontinued when use of the devices becomes commonplace, as in the case of airbags.

When everyone uses a safety device, special auto insurance discounts no longer can be justified, he says.

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