Opinion

With Uber test, what should we make of driverless cars? Will they do doughnuts in the snow?

Take a ride inside Google’s self-driving car

What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak in early 2016.
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What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak in early 2016.

I am not warming up to the idea of getting in a car driven by some idealistic digital drone who might only remember my drive-thru coffee order and birthday if I program it to do so.

You know that mano-a-techno robotic relationship you have with your security system, your audio system, your irrigation and lighting system, (and don’t forget the thermostat)? Well, get used to it, because that’s the impersonal vibe I imagine when dealing with an autonomous attitude. Unless my commuter computer carries on a conversation with me like HAL from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” — well, I’ll reserve judgment before I declare this is ALL THAT and a bag of silicon chips.

Is this still sci-fi or is this concept really going to get into my grill someday?

It’s real. It’s happening now in Pittsburgh. Yes, there’s still a real human behind the wheel during Uber’s ongoing testing there. Part of me thinks it must be embarrassing for the Old Guard in “Steel City” to be recast as “Wheel City,” becoming the proving ground for headless-horseless carriages.

When Uber came to Boise and other places, there was flap about how much we really knew about the backgrounds of people who were going to ferry us around the Treasure Valley. Some of the cabbies were livid because of new competition and the way the new services just kind of moved in on their territory.

Something tells me the human cabbies and present human Uber chauffeurs are going to have a common concern — losing business or jobs — when the so-called “driverless” cars and services start showing up. Not to mention those of us who might run into them during our commutes. Though they are still sorting out the circumstances around a fatal accident involving a car being operated on “autopilot” in Florida this summer, it was bound to happen someday.

I will leave it to these auto scientists to solve all the mechanical, logistical and safety problems. In the meantime, help me solve some nomenclature and cultural conundrums bound to crop up as the driverless vehicles merge on to the highways of life:

▪  What in the world do we call these, ah, co-pilots in our cars? I have thought of Commuter Computer or “<Driver>,” using the less-than sign in front, and the greater-than sign on the tail end of the word driver. Maybe we’ll just give them a personal “handle.” Make some suggestions.

▪ We know how to communicate our displeasure to another driver when dealing with humans — hand signals and horns come to mind. But how to scold an autopilot who nearly runs us off the road?

▪ When we arrive at a stop sign or flashing red light at the exact same moment, how do we wave a courtesy to a robot? Or let them cut in front of us in stalled traffic? A headlight wink?

▪  Will the programmers ever allow their vehicle to do a doughnut in the snow? Pull over for a scenic view? Pick up a burger and fries at a drive-thru? Take in a drive-in movie or stop at the ATM?

▪ Who, or what, will get the ticket and communicate with the police officer should we ever get pulled over? “Sorry, officer, James is just a jangle of circuit jitters today ...”

Your guess is as good as mine.

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