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iDriving into Oblivion

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Call me a Luddite, but I can’t embrace today’s overly complex and largely unnecessary infotainment systems in cars. Anyone who read my first column knows my daily driver is a 2003 Porsche 911. While not that old, it seems positively analog compared to most of today’s new cars. I actually have to – egad! – twist a nob to turn up the volume on the radio.

Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the new vehicle tech is kinda nice. Bluetooth is a great way to tap my digital music library, and navigation systems certainly take the challenge out of travel in the unknown – even if I can use my iPhone for the same thing (and my iPhone does not get traded with the car).

But frankly, I put most of these systems in the “Mom, look what I can do” category. They are cool, but do they really aid our driving experience or make it easier? It seems like the answer is no.

Now, even gee whiz touch screen infotainment systems are starting to seem old school. The new frontier in vehicular tech is automated driving aides – radar-assisted cruise control, cars that park themselves, lane-keeping assist, and even completely automated driving systems needing only minimal human input.

Take for example the new Audi Q7. Switch on Predictive Adaptive cruise control and it will maintain the posted speed, brake the car, avoid obstructions, and keep you in your lane. Basically it will drive for you, so long as you put your hands on the wheel periodically.

The Q7 is hardly alone. A growing number of new cars have some type of self-driving automation systems. Although largely the domain of higher-end cars today, it’s safe to assume these systems will eventually trickle down just as most vehicle tech has done over the decades.

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In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that the ultimate evolution of these vehicular automation systems could be something akin to Google’s recently revealed fully robotic pod cars. Who needs to be bothered with pushing a pedal or even turning on the autopilot? Just get in, tell it where you want to go, and the pod does everything else, no fallible human required.

All of these systems are intended to improve driver safety, not just provide us with more convenience. Adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, and Google’s robot cars join their grandfathers – antilock brakes and stability control – in reducing or preventing driver error.

It’s hoped . . .

With the proliferation of driver distractions – texting, e-mailing, or just trying to figure out how to adjust the volume on your maddening new infotainment system – the electronic driving nannies may make some sense. Unfortunately, I’ve come to think that providing poor, easily distracted drivers with more opportunities to be poor, easily distracted drivers may not be the textbook way to improve safety on our roads. I suspect an over-dependence on semi-autonomous driving aids may well create the potential for more frequent lapses of attention and certainly an atrophy of the basic driving skills we learned at 16.

Google's Lexus Self-Driving Car

Paradoxically, that decline in driving skills may mean that we actually see an increase in accidents and sloppy motoring as automated driving aids become standard features in more and more cars.

Indeed, I actually fear the proliferation of driver automation systems could lead us to a cascade of unintended consequences. As driving aids predominate, it won’t be hard for many to come to feel that a human behind the wheel of a car is simply too dangerous. That logic that could drive us (pun intended) and our risk-averse policy makers closer and closer to mandating Google’s vision of soulless robot pods where we are only passengers and no longer capable of making mistakes.

So if removing the steering wheel actually does make us safer, why shouldn’t I just embrace the inevitable? Well, for one, I love cars and don’t particularly like the thought of no longer being able to enjoy the thrill of piloting a Porsche down a twisty road, unless KITT rides as a companion.

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My far more pressing concern is the thinking that fully autonomous cars will solve all that ails us. Call me a glass-half-empty kinda guy, but I suspect putting us all in Google pods will not mean the end to accidents.

Instead, we may simply replace teens running red lights because they are texting with the specter of teen hackers in China, who take control of our flimsy robot pods and run them into one another like a real-life slot car track. Or worse, completely shutting down our “safe” autonomous transportation system for their fun desire to create economic chaos.

The prognosticators and profit-driven proponents of robot cars will no doubt say that’s unlikely, but think again. As we saw recently with the recall of 1.4 million Jeeps and Chryslers because a network vulnerability allowed the car to be taken over remotely, cyberjacking a car is not hypothetical – it’s already happening.

And it will happen again. We should know by now there is no sure protection for malicious hacking. Patch one vulnerability and someone will find another – whether for money or just sick enjoyment. If a Jeep that actually has someone sitting at the wheel can get hacked, imagine what could happen with fleets of autonomous and networked pods whizzing down the road?

Without a doubt I’m painting a picture of a dystopian future, rather than reveling in the rosy glow of a day when I can spend more time reading in the car like George Jetson.

And no, I’m not a technophobe.

I love my iPhone and iPod and laptop and Netflix and sci-fi-come-to-life FaceTime video phoning. But I’ve learned to sometimes be skeptical about new technology in my advancing age. Not every shiny new tech toy is better. Sometimes the “solution” comes with as many or more problems than it solves.  Autonomous driving might be the same.

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Sure, it’s fun to be able to read our e-mail in the car (maybe) or let HAL 9000 endure the tedium of steering the car as we creep along in stop-and-go traffic. I think we should be asking ourselves, however, whether we really need those conveniences, or are we simply acting like digital lemmings plowing over yet another silicon cliff?

So I think it’s time we take a harder look at just how much tech and automation we accept and start questioning the wisdom of some of the new in-car gadgets.

I’d prefer the devil I know for the devil I don’t, and will vote with my feet on autonomous driving by continuing to enjoy my “low-tech” 911 in defense of real driving skills. I hope more see the light before driving becomes as antiquated as the horse and buggy and we blindly enter a new era of corporate-induced techno chaos in the false name of safety.

What do you think of autonomous driving?

*Jonathan Orr is a writer, car aficionado, PR pro, Afghanistan veteran, and proud father of three. He considers his beloved Porsche 911 a member of the family. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanjorr