Caveat Reader: this is a piece about politics. We’ll start out talking about fun stuff, like cars and technology. But, when we get around to politics, don’t complain I didn’t warn you.
For the first time in 22 years, I’m reluctantly in the market for a new car. The 2004 hand-me-down Honda Pilot I’ve been driving for six years finally gave up the ghost this week. So, somewhat unprepared, my wife and I made the short walk from the service department to the dealer showroom yesterday to begin the shopping experience.
I told the salesman I was interested in a hybrid or electric vehicle, so he took us to the one Accord Hybrid he had on the lot. After reviewing key features, we hopped in for a test drive, with him behind the wheel.
The salesman took us down a busy street a few blocks to the interstate, where he gave it plenty of gas (or volts, or whatever) to show us this hybrid could get up and go. We accelerated onto the highway and quickly merged to the left of three lanes.
At cruising speed, the salesman set the cruise control and took his foot away from the accelerator and brake pedals to demonstrate the driver-assistive features Honda calls “sensing” that allow the car to vary speed to maintain a safe distance to other vehicles on the road. He showed us how the car would automatically slow down and brake as traffic stopped ahead or another vehicle pulled in front of us.
That was nerve-racking enough. But then, clipping along at 70+ MPH, our salesman took his hands off the steering wheel to demonstrate the “Road Departure Mitigation System.” As I gripped the door handle so tight my knuckles turned white, he let the car to drift to the left towards the concrete center barrier as the road curved away in front of us. I was bracing for impact and doing all I could to not grab the controls, when the steering wheel turned itself slightly right, and the car started drifting towards the center lane. As we approached the white line, the wheel again adjusted to the left, and we continued in this fashion for what felt like an eternity (but was probably only seconds).
It was a powerful — and certainly memorable — demonstration of the car’s most advanced features. But, I’m not sure I could ever let go of that steering wheel. (Nor does Honda recommend you do!) At the turnaround point, the salesman let me take over to drive us back to the showroom. And, with much coaxing, he finally persuaded me to let the car’s Adaptive Cruise Control and Collision Mitigation Braking System stop and restart the car in traffic. That level of trust was uncomfortable enough. But, no way I was letting go of the steering!!
As a safeguard against catastrophe, automated steering is an effective use of technology. But, drifting aimlessly left and right across the travel lane, putting full faith in technology I barely understood, was neither a comfortable nor efficient way to travel.
Later, headed home from the dealership in my soon-to-be-retired Pilot SUV, I was listening on the radio to a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing interrogating the FBI Inspector General about his recent report.
Senators from each party were taking turns questioning Mr. Horowitz — contorting themselves and the witness to score their particular party’s political points. It was precisely the kind of back-and-forth, political ping-pong that has us all so exhausted. And, suddenly. I felt like I was back in that Accord on that test drive.
For a while now, our country has been barreling down the highway with no hands on the wheel. The Presidency and control of each house of Congress changes hands back and forth, and whichever party is out of power uses the mechanisms of government to check that power. There are presumed safeguards in place to keep us from veering too far to the left or right, but it’s an AWFUL way to travel.
We’re relying on features intended only as a last resort safety net, rather than steering deliberately, with a unified sense of direction, down the center of the roadway. And, it doesn’t really feel good when we drift and veer left and right, blindly trusting there will always be a self-correcting response from the system itself.
We’re lucky our forefathers conceived of a “Road Departure Mitigation System” centuries before automotive engineers did. But, I seriously doubt they anticipated or intended we’d willfully let go of the wheel, take our foot away from the brake, and let the machine do the steering and stopping.
There are some kinds of stupid no engineer can ever design to anticipate. And, I am afraid we’re finding it. Driving like this never ends well.
Image Credits: Hands free driving - couple in a car - woman driving with no hands and man scared was taken by © Luis Louro is a stock photo licensed at 123RF.com by LikeTheDew.com using contributions from generous readers such as you (a link to help support the Dew is at the bottom of every page); the illustration of Honda Accord's Road Departure Mitigation System is a promotional photo (fair use).