The Car With No Driver

By: | October 1, 2013

Ara Trembly is founder of The Tech Consultant and The Rogue Guru Blog. He can be reached at [email protected]

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned after some 30 years of covering technology is that one should never — repeat, never — buy version 1.0 of any technology, or even the next two versions. Why should we avoid early versions of our latest and greatest technologies?

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First and foremost, it is a fact of technology development that much of the actual product development takes place at the hands and expense of early adopters, who must wrestle with the inevitable glitches that come with inadequate product testing from the manufacturer.

More important than that, however, is the notion that technology tends to run ahead of real life. In other words, we’re not always prepared to deal with our new technologies when they are implemented in the field.

Take, for example, a recent item from The Hollywood Reporter, which says that “the sci-fi world of self-driving cars” is now nearing reality with the announcement that German car parts supplier Continental is reportedly close to a deal with Google and IBM to develop autonomous driving systems.

According to the article, Continental, Europe’s second largest auto parts maker, already has an agreement with network equipment maker Cisco Systems to develop systems for automated and driverless automobiles, and for data transfer between cars.

Hanover-based Continental, which makes everything from tires to brakes and stability control systems for cars and trucks, “could be an ideal partner for the Internet giant and push the idea of self-driving cars into the mainstream,” according to the article.

The article speculated that Continental, which has a large in-house team of developers already working on self-driving technology, would deliver the steering systems needed for robot cars. IBM would likely handle back-end communication via a high-speed data server delivering real-time road and car information systems, and Google would provide navigation, traffic and online technology.

Sounds great from a technology development point of view, but one wonders whether some of the practicalities have been addressed.

For instance, from an insurance point of view, how do we place liability when (and it will definitely happen) a technological malfunction occurs, leading to an accident? Do we blame the software maker, the braking systems manufacturer, the steering system designer or the information provider? Or maybe insurers will be forced to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks.

The risk outlook is uncertain, to say the least.

Another thing that isn’t clear — and probably won’t be for some time — is how much control the driver will have, should he or she decide to assert it in driving said vehicle.

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Will the on-board computers cooperate in surrendering control, or will a soulless voice tell the human driver, “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that”?

Eventually, most of these problems will be worked out, or at least most of the parties will agree on who is liable for what, and under what circumstances. For the moment, however, I want no part of a technology that puts me as the powerless driver behind the proverbial eight-ball.

I suppose it would be interesting to be part of the first legal cases arising from this technological leap. On the other hand, I’d just as soon wait around for version 4.0 or 5.0 before dipping my toes in those waters.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]