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October 06, 2003

Can't Be Too Soon for Me


I don’t know how much time you spend driving in New York, but the amount of time I spend in Los Angeles behind the wheel pondering the lack of driving skills among my fellow Angelinos is easy to describe: too much. After watching traffic routinely bunch up every time a freeway takes a bend or goes up a hill, it’s hard to keep a very elevated notion of the skill level and attention span of one’s fellow drivers.

I understand the reasons for the public policy decision to allow more or less everyone of adult years to drive. But I can’t help but fantasize about how much more efficient getting from place to place would be if we could require the least-skilled ten percent of the population to use the bus. (I swear, rush-hour traffic speeds would, at a minimum, double.)

Since this is one of those fantasies that would require becoming Diktator of California to bring about—in short, not worth the effort involved, even during the recall campaign—I’ve found a new subject to fantasize about while driving: using computers to substitute for the questionable judgment and reflexes of my fellow automotive travelers. As a result, I eagerly read a story by Dan McCosh in the NY Times, “With a Computer at the Wheel, the Steering Thinks for Itself.” (You can read this here.)

As electronics have increasingly invaded car control systems, engineers have given them a role in boosting safety by watching out for driver errors such as locking the brakes in panic stops. This process has been taken a step farther by a system called ‘Active Steering’ available as an option on the BMW 5 series.

New BMW 5 Series: Smarter Than Some of Its Drivers?

This allows the car’s electronics to change the ratio of the steering wheel to the movement of the car’s front wheels depending on the speed and driving conditions. Among other things, it allows the driver to park with far less effort than previously, the front wheel movement : steering wheel movement ratio increasing greatly at very low (parking) speeds.

But as Mr. McCosh points out, that ain’t the half of it:

Active steering has another, more impressive trick up its sleeve, though this innovation remains unused until an emergency arises. For the first time, a car is being equipped with the ability to steer itself in certain situations, presumably with greater skill and accuracy than the human at the wheel…This action takes place when sensors that track the car's movement indicate that the steering wheel has been turned more than is necessary or prudent for a safe maneuver, potentially causing a skid. A computer-controlled electric motor overrides the driver's motion at the steering wheel, turning the front wheels up to 2.5 degrees in the opposite direction.

Mr. McCosh tests the system in emergency-esque situations on a test track and comes away humbled by the ability of the system to take extremely difficult maneuvers (with a great risk of losing control of the vehicle) and turn them into fairly modest driving tasks. But he speculates that this is only the thin edge of the wedge for computer-controlled steering:

It is conceivable that this type of system would someday be linked to a forward-looking laser or radar unit like those already installed in some vehicles to operate the cruise control. These obstacle detection systems are not yet refined enough to veer around a child darting into the street, but the idea offers a powerful incentive.

All I can say is, the faster this sort of thing comes to pass, the better I’ll like it.

I guess one of the unexpected discoveries I've made as I've gotten older is how willing I am to give up control of my car to such systems…if I can be sure the “talentless tenth” will be forced to do likewise.

Ah, call me a wild dreamer...



posted by Friedrich at October 6, 2003


I dunno...I'm yearning for the days of cars with less computer. I've gotten my first newish car this year (a 2000 VW Golf) and the automatic door locks drive me crazy. I don't want it to lock all the doors every time I drive over 5 mph, especially when I'm delivering flowers and getting in and out every five minutes. I don't want power windows that only roll halfway down in the back because I'm too stupid to keep my non-existent children from falling out the window. I don't want a check engine light constantly on because it can be triggered by over 30000 problems most commonly that you don't tighten the gas cap enough (it's been on for seven of the nine months we've owned it, and each dealer repair only turns it off for a week at most - with an $85 fee to "access" the computer). And I really don't want an insurance company to be able to plug a laptop into the thing and analyze my driving habits.

So I really really don't want the damn thing to steer for me.

I sold my 84 Saab to a friend when we got the VW and he's still using it, at 280000 miles. But even those old, computer-less gems will disappear soon.

Are any car companies releasing zero-computer, manual everything vehicles for curmudgeons like me?

Posted by: Nate on October 6, 2003 6:30 PM

If you find out, let me know. Being a Manhattanite who hasn't owned a car in 20 years (we rent when we go out of town), I find all the automated thingees new cars are full of very disconcerting. Automatic transmission, fine; power steering and brakes, fine. Anything beyond that, though, spare me. But I don't generally like machines that are too eager to read my thoughts, do you? Computer programs that scurry around after me, trying to anticipate what I want -- screw 'em. I want them to sit there, behave, and take orders instead.

My particular and peculiar rant, I know ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2003 1:53 AM

No, it's shared by many! I can't STAND word processors that 'fix' things I've written, I know the rules enough to realize when I'm breaking them for effect, thank you very much Mr. Gates!

I'm really torn about the automated stuff on cars though. Sometimes I've been really glad to have computer controlled anti-lock brakes, and at others I've cursed having an automatic transmission.

And those rear windows that don't go down all the way really do tick me off!

Unfortunately there is not likely to be much correlation between that bottom 10% of drivers and those that can afford cars with nifty auto-accident features such as contemplated in the linked article. We probably won't see them in wide use until increasing air-quality standards are such that cars too old to have them are finally retired (sometime around when the 2blowhards are too! :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on October 7, 2003 4:13 AM

"But I can’t help but fantasize about how much more efficient getting from place to place would be if we could require the least-skilled ten percent of the population to use the bus. (I swear, rush-hour traffic speeds would, at a minimum, double.)"

I'm not sure I get how a computer would make people see the traffic flow better or make better lane-changing decisions in rush hour. Most rush hour clog isn't due to an accident which could be avoided, just inattentiveness...

Posted by: annette on October 7, 2003 10:25 AM

Reason 2,647 why not to move back to LA.

Oh Friedrich, I feel your pain. Getting stuck in that kind of traffic, day after day - is why I had to divorce my Honda and move to New York. After about 5 fender-benders, I divorced the car, packed my bags and moved to the land of public transportation. Enough!

California is a desert with no damn water, earthquakes, smog and more traffic than you can shake a stick at. Motor companies in the 1950's lobbied to close a perfectly good rail system (trolly of some description) from Long Beach through downtown and across the city to Santa Monica. It was brilliant, and it worked - pollution free. After I learned this in some geography class at UCLA, I decided: boycott. Screw em'. Car manufacturers can kiss my ass.

Average monthly cost for a car?
$800 w/ out parking (in NYC tack on another $250)

Average cost to ride the subway, grab cabs and repair my bicycle?

So while most folks are paying roughly $10,000 a year on their car, I'm paying about $1,500 on transportation. It's a no brainer. The other $8,500 goes straight to my high rent and fabulous restaurants, of course. Ah - but it's Manhattan, and it's worth it.

Posted by: turbokitty on October 7, 2003 11:30 AM

I like the idea of a qualified inspector accessing a computer (required on all cars) yearly in order to see if the driver of the car meets safety standards (speed, acceleration, speed on turns and curves, etc) established by a committee of government certified experts. If the driver does not pass he must 1)take an extensive driving course 2)pay an increased licensing fee 3)lose his license if his misbehavior is repeated. This would certainly make our streets safer and increase the driving pleasure of people like me!

Posted by: rowser on October 7, 2003 12:41 PM

turbokitty: The fact is that motor buses became more efficient and flexible than streetcars, and replaced them just about everywhere, with no conniving by GM or Ford. By 1950, nearly all streetcar companies were heavy money-losers, and most cities wanted to get rid of rails in the streets and overhead wires. That 'auto companies murdered LA's streetcar system' is a myth invented by an antitrust lawyer named Snell, who got most of his facts wrong. See "General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars" by Cliff Slater in Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 51. No. 3 Summer 1997 (45-66).

[This article was posted to USENET and can be fetched by the following Google Groups search: ]

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 7, 2003 1:14 PM

Come to think of it, and I guess I know this will raise the ire of our youthful visitors, I sometimes wonder why anyone younger than 30 is allowed to drive. They get drunk, they smoke dope, they don't really understand that they (and everyone else) is actually mortal, and they cause most accidents. Cars are big hurtling masses of metal and glass. Would you want an addled adolescent in charge of one?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2003 7:13 PM

Yeah, but how about senior citizens? They cause their fair share of accidents too. Maybe they should have to turn in their licence before they can collect their first Social Security check, or at least face another driving test.

Posted by: Nate on October 8, 2003 12:11 PM


OK after reading part of a very long link, even if this site is correct and trolly services were not replaced from motor co's. and they lost the "survival of the fittest" battle instead - does it matter? Not really.

LA has crap public transportation and a hellacious traffic problem. I've actually waited a really long time, several times, for the bus - and once it shows up, you have to choose which crazy person you want to sit next to. Because it's just the crazy people and *you* on the bus ( + the bus driver who is an asshole, right?). So a million hours later (when you're only a 10 minute car ride away) you get to where you're going. And that's it. That's the grand transportation system LA offers.

The city of Los Angeles totally screwed up. It could be the motor companies, it could be the city - to me, it doesn't matter. Sitting in cross town traffic for over an hour of your life everyday just ain't worth it. It's the revolution of the stupid people with their stupid cars polluting the earth. Plus, how can any community relate to their community in a metalic bubble? The coldness of the people and the unability to communicate originate from the womb of the automobile. Get out of the car and walk the streets of LA. Automobiles are not superior. Bicylces ROCK!!!!

Posted by: turbokitty on October 8, 2003 10:30 PM

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