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Oh-Oh, Here Come the Jetsons

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Self-driving cars preparing to hit the road, and I’m feeling nervous.

Even though it came out slightly after my childhood, as a teenager I enjoyed watching “The Jetsons” TV cartoon series.

It opened with the futuristic family going to school and work in a self-driving flying saucer that folded up into a briefcase after landing.

The show dates to the 1960s. Back then, we all thought a lot of that self-driving stuff was fanciful. Yet, now there is a serious movement to develop and produce “autonomous cars” that would leave the driving to them.

It began with the highly publicized experimental Google self-driving cars that have logged more than 300,000 allegedly safe miles on public roads in California and Nevada.

Of course, each Google car contains more than $500,000 in advanced technology that takes up all of the trunk space. There’s also a big and ugly apparatus on the roof.

The more commercially practical research on autonomous car technology mostly comes from German auto makers and suppliers. We began seeing glimmers of it a few years ago with high-end self-parking vehicles.

Now, we have lane monitoring, blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control and drowsy-driver alerts. All of this collectively hints at moving toward technology totally taking control of driving.

Mercedes-Benz has announced limited production of cars that will drive themselves for brief stretches if drivers take their hands off of the wheel.

The concept is scary enough to begin with. Allowing a car to drive itself would feel like skydiving for the very first time. Even when someone else is driving, it unsettles me not to be in control. I find myself continually saying, “Whoa, watch out!” I am a white-knuckled passenger.

Imagine what it would be like to completely trust the technology with cars and circumstances all around you, especially when the other cars might still be driven manually by totally unpredictable real drivers.

The Society of Automotive Engineers says the biggest obstacle to autonomous cars is public trust and acceptance. I am waiting to see how the liability issues will wash out.

The main challenge is to program complex algorithms and situational responses identifying road hazards and split-second emergency reaction. The systems would react to millions of pre-programmed situational incidents, making it potentially more capable than human drivers.

California and Nevada, the two states that sanction autonomous test driving on public roads, still require a licensed driver at the controls and the ability of the driver to retake control immediately.

What will all of this mean if it becomes an everyday reality?

Will there be a time when driver’s licenses are obsolete and you insure the car and not the person? Maybe Granny and Gramps won’t have to tie up traffic driving 30 mph in the fast lane anymore. Could you send the kids to school in the car without going with them?

The imagination runs wild. Cross-country trips while you sleep or use your iPad are part of the promise. No traffic lights or speed limits? Would traffic cops and radar detectors become obsolete?

We’re nearing the tipping point of distracted driving. I’m not just talking about texting and driving, but rather operating the complicated technology installed in even the most basic cars today.

It practically requires a master’s degree in technology just to drive a BMW off of the dealers’ lot these days. It takes sales professionals 45 minutes to tell buyers how to operate the car.

Ford has taken criticism for the complexity of its infotainment system. Some consumers are complaining about the new General Motors programs. If today’s technology leads to drivers taking their eyes off the road, tomorrow’s technology may make that entirely possible without fearful driver-distraction consequences.

Personally, I would miss yelling at other people for their bonehead driving. Oh well, time marches on.

Keep those emails and calls coming.

Jim Ziegler is president of Ziegler Supersystems as well as a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues. He can be reached at zieglerss@aol.com. WardsAuto readers also may comment on this article by logging in or registering below.

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Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.

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Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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