Asleep At The Wheel . . .

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If you dislike driving – or just aren’t very good at it – you may like the idea of the autonomous car.

In it, you become a passenger – as involved in the process of getting to your destination as the occupant of seat 23B on the Airbus to LA. Feel free to take a nap. We’ll wake you when we get there.

I’m not a big fan myself – because I’m one of those retro weirdos who likes to do things for myself. But I concede the point about taking driver error out of the equation – by taking the driver out of the equation. People are inept, incompetent, reckless and lazy. They get fatigued – and angry. Their judgment is frequently flawed. They are easily distracted.

Computers are more reliable, more consistent – and devoid of emotion. They never get tired or distracted. Much less mad. Thus, they are “safer.” Let them be in charge.

This is the main argument presented in favor of autonomous cars.

Fine.

But what about the partially autonomous car? The one that takes over for the driver sometimes – but not all the time?

Many new cars are like this. The 2014 Acura MDX, for instance.

One of the features it offers is part-time, hands-free steering -  or “agile steering assist,” as it’s styled. You’re obviously not supposed to ever take your hands off the wheel. Acura warns explicitly and vociferously against this – no doubt having been so advised by counsel.

But this system will almost certainly tempt people to do exactly that – whether to show off the system’s capability to friends or “just for a second” while they do somethingelse with their hands. Cue Bob Dooooooole: You know it, I know it – the American people know it.

Acura probably knows it, too.

Push a button on the steering wheel and sensors come to life, scanning the road ahead, using the painted lines to your left and right as reference points. Mr. Roboto adjusts the steering to keep the vehicle in its lane and on track with little or no input from you.

No need to say domo arigato, either.

It’s amazing technology. Science fiction stuff, from my Gen X standpoint.

But it’s far from foolproof.

I suspect the fools will prove this to be the case.

If the painted lines are old and not so bright – or not there at all – the MDX will still wander off the road like an ’86 Buick with an addled glaucomic Grandpa behind the wheel.

If, that is, the driver doesn’t intervene in time.

And timely, successful intervention is a function of . . .  paying attention.

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