The Other Side of “Safety”

Technology never makes mistakes – unlike the humans who design it. Who never fail to anticipate the unanticipated.

Perfection issuing from imperfection, reversing the usual order of things.

Sarcasm, in case you didn’t pick up on it.

This 190 proof moonshine – distilled by arrogant technocrats like Elon Musk – is going to get people hurt as automated-driving technology comes online.

I recently test drove a 2018 VW Atlas (review here) which has what several other new cars also have: The ability to partially steer itself, without you doing a thing.

Time to buy old US gold coins

There are hi-res cameras built into the front end of the car that scan the road ahead; they see the painted lines to the left and right and use them as reference points to tell servo-motors when (and how much) to turn the steering wheel to keep the car in between the lines.

It is billed as Lane Keep Assist (or more honestly, Steering Assist) but words don’t change what it does, which is turn the steering wheel for you .  . . and sometimes, against you.

Enter the unintended consequence.

The system – which is touted (you knew this was coming) as a saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety aid – is set up such that you must signalbefore making a lane change, else the semi-self-steering system will perceive this as an affront and fight to prevent you from making a lane change. It feels exactly like the hand of your mother-in-law pulling the steering wheel in the opposite direction. The force applied is not great, but it’s there – and it’s very weird to feel the car countermanding your inputs – or at least, trying to.

But all you have to do is signal to prevent this from happening! The system stops trying to steer against you, then. And shouldn’t one always signal?

As important as courtesy is, one may not have time or presence of mind to do so in an emergency situation. A deer suddenly bounding into your lane, for instance.

Or, a Clover.

Now the car is fighting you – trying to keep you in your lane when remaining in your lane is very likely to result in bent metal.

For a man with strong arms and grip strength, it’s mostly an annoyance – not unlike brushing your annoying mother-in-law’s hand off the wheel. But for a woman or someone without strong arms and a firm grip on the wheel?

The result might be – well, not “safe.”

Remember: Computers aren’t smart. They are programmed. They are not (yet) thinking machines. They are automatons, fed certain operating parameters within which they operate – and that’s it. When a not-anticipated variable crops up, what happens? You may remember the classic ‘60s sci-fi series, Lost in Space and the belligerent, arm-waving robot.

It does not compute!


Humans, on the other hand, think. Or at least, are capable of it. Whether they exercise it is another question, of course. But the point is, they – unlike a computer program – can adjust to deal with an unanticipated variable. They know that signaling is of not much importance when a deer bounds into the path of a car; that swerving – right got-damned now – is of paramount importance.

But the technocrats know better, don’t they?

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