Perils of the Part-Time Driver

Big Brother has been riding shotgun for years, but he’s never been able to actually watch what we do in our cars.

That’s about to change.

He’ll soon be able to tell whether we’re sleeping or texting or doing other things unrelated to driving. Which isn’t the bad part.

BMW just publicly revealed their new camera-based driver monitoring system. It is called Extended Traffic Jam Assistant and will be available in the 2019 X5, the company’s best-selling mid-sized SUV.

The assistant is part of what’s styled Level 2 automated driving tech. The 2019 X5 can drive itself – including steer itself – without the driver touching anything – all the way up to just under 40 MPH. But for obvious reasons – including legal liability reasons – BMW doesn’t want to leave it entirely up to the X5 to drive itself.

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The driver is still expected to pay attention to his driving – even when he’s not the one actually driving the car.

But if the driver is supposed to pay attention to driving, shouldn’t he just . . . drive?

And if he isn’t driving – if the vehicle is equipped with a system specifically designed to do that for him – is it reasonable to expect him to pay attention? And how can he fairly be held responsible for the consequences of the vehicle’s bad driving?

If the car isn’t 100 percent capable of safely controlling itself without the driver ever needing to concern himself with what’s going on, then he probably ought to concern himself with what is going on 100 percent of the time .  . . otherwise isn’t this automated car stuff unsafe?

Paying partial attention isn’t sufficient – for all the obvious reasons. If the driver is looking away from the road – even for just the moment it takes to type and send a text – that is precisely the moment when his lack of paying attention may prove decisive.

If he fails to notice in time that traffic up ahead just stopped – and the automated X5 fails to stop itself in time – then the car isn’t going to stop in time. Who is at fault?

The part-time driver?

Or the part-time automated car?

And who gets the ticket?

This technology (and BMW is not the only car company installing it; Tesla does and so does GM’s Cadillac division) is hugely questionable because it introduces a purposeful delay in reaction times – something you’d think the Greek chorus of saaaaaafety nags inside and outside of the government would be most concerned about.

But the chorus is oddly silent.

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