Driverless cars: What could possibly go wrong?


If I were to make a list of the top 10 things we need to make the world a better place, self-driving cars would probably not make the cut.

Before we turn our car keys over to computers and their programmers, maybe we should try to improve and perfect the human-type drivers we have now; drivers who are going too fast and are distracted by all the computer gizmos and high-tech devices we already have in our cars.

Once we’ve figured out how to make all human drivers a lot better, maybe then can we can turn driving over to the computers.

Yet, car manufacturers are determined to give us driverless cars as soon as possible and say they have made significant advances in the past 10 years towards making self-driving cars a reality.

But there remain lots of what are called “technological barriers,” problems that we can only hope will be “fixed” before self-driving or driverless cars are safe enough to join the rest of us superb drivers out on the Maine Turnpike or 295 going at least 70 mph.

Like what problems, I hear you ask.

Well, small things like the onboard GPS systems, which, they say, can be “unreliable.” Just when you need it to be at its best, it has no idea where it is. I’d say that’s a pretty big problem for a car – driverless or otherwise.

Then there’s what the driverless guys call “the computer vision systems issue.” According to that “issue,” computers still have a limited understanding of what are called “road scenes.” That problem alone can lead to some pretty bad scenes, man.

Car designers also admit that weather conditions can be a problem because they can adversely affect the computers ability to identify or track moving objects.

I’m not a scientist, but even I know that a driverless car that can’t identify “things” should not be carrying human passengers while going 65-70 mph.

But wait – there’s more!

Driverless cars have not demonstrated the same ability as most of us human drivers in understanding and navigating around what they call “unstructured environments” such as construction sites and accident areas. Again, that could lead to problems on the road and may lead to MORE accidents. And if there is a serious accident involving a driverless car, who are you going to sue – the computer programmers?

Designers say these barriers are not insurmountable. They say the amount of road and traffic data available to these vehicles is increasing, newer range sensors are capturing more data, and the algorithms for interpreting road scenes are evolving. I’m feeling safer already.

The transition from human-operated vehicles to fully self-driving cars will be “gradual,” with vehicles at first performing only a subset of driving tasks such as parking and driving in stop-and-go traffic autonomously. As the technology improves, more driving tasks can be reliably outsourced to the vehicle’s various computers. I think being a driverless parking attendant would be a perfect entry-level job.

Before I could drive a car on the highways of Maine I had to go to the DMV and take a written test, then arrange to take a road test with a stern-looking DMV tester right there in the passenger seat. So, who do you test with a driverless car?

And what happens if a driverless car commits a driving offense? Is he sent – with his lawless lawyer to a judgeless traffic court?

Maine storyteller John McDonald is the author of several bestselling books, including his latest, “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tails,” which is a sequel to “A Moose and a Lobster.”  John also entertains throughout New England, telling his Maine stories at banquets, conventions, conferences and other special events. Contact him at 207-899-1868 or