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Will Driverless Cars Take The Joy, Responsibility Out Of Driving?

By Aaron Crowe

If you’ve ever driven a convertible on a sunny day, sped a stickshift Maserati through winding hills, or gunned a 1967 Ford Mustang to 100 mph on a desolated road, then you know the joy of driving.

I’ve done all of those, and I’ll never forget the fun of those drives.

But what if instead of being behind the wheel and taking a leisurely road trip and enjoying the sights, or otherwise finding satisfaction in driving a car, the car drove itself and you just sat there and let the car do all of the work? A driverless car might be safer, but would it take the joy out of driving while lessening a driver’s responsibilities?

For Brian Bagdasarian, founder of APerfectShirt.com who does a lot of work in his car while driving, having a self-driving car such as the Google Prius would save him a lot of time.

“How much of your driving do you actually enjoy?” Bagdasarian asks.

Driving in a traffic jam is never any fun. A driverless car, where a computer takes over and uses sensors to determine where cars are around it and can get to its destination without a person’s assistance, can make driving a skill of the past.

Self-driving cars for the masses are at least five years away, partly because it takes three years to produce a vehicle when new technology is introduced, but also because smaller safety steps are being installed on cars piecemeal as they become more affordable, says Paul Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Testing driverless cars is a long way from finding them for sale at your local car dealer, Green says.

“Having a bunch of cars driving around on the highway under limited conditions is not the same as ‘Let’s give this to the American public,’” he says.

That’s because safety systems are still being refined and added to cars. “We are just beginning to develop the technology,” Green says, such as collision avoidance braking that uses radar to detect how close a car is in front of you and automatically applies the brakes if the car in front slows down.

Other safety features — some of which are already available on cars and some that are being developed — include lane departure warnings and adaptive stop and go cruise control that isn’t available yet but will slow a car from 65 mph to zero if traffic slows without the driver having to lift a finger, or a foot.

More high-tech safety measures have the “prospect of substantially reducing crashes and fatality rates,” Green says, while also giving the driver less interest in driving during traffic congestion, for example.

The “driver” of a driverless car could become less engaged in driving and feel less responsible for driving, but safety systems must let drivers know of coming problems (such as drifting out of their lane or a child running behind their car in the driveway) so that they can take over in an emergency, Green says.

New safety devices have a history of not being as effective as originally hoped because drivers compensate with riskier behavior, such as driving faster in slippery conditions because they have anti-lock brakes, says John Wetmore, producer “Perils for Pedestrians,” a TV series that examines issues affecting people who walk.

“Self-driving cars might be safer, but you can expect much of that increased safety to be neutralized by decreased following distances and similar changes,” Wetmore says.

And, he asks: “How does a pedestrian make eye contact with a self-driving car?”

Machines assisting with driving — or parking, as the new Audi does by parking itself — are a good start to drivers becoming less relevant eventually, which is a good thing and will make driving safer, says Michael O’Shea, CEO of Abalta Technologies, which works with insurance companies and car manufacturers to make technology safe in a car.

“I would trust a machine more than I would trust an average driver on the road,” O’Shea says.

Driverless cars could lead to changes that go beyond driving, he says. If they lead to fewer accidents, then heavy cars made of steel wouldn’t be needed anymore to protect drivers in crashes.

Parking lots and car ownership could become unnecessary if a driverless car could pick you up and deliver you to your destination, and then go pick up other drivers during the day until you need a ride home, O’Shea says.

Young people prefer technology and using their smartphones, he says, and are likely to prefer a driverless car as the joy of driving leaves their memories.

That might be better for car safety, but driving a stickshift convertible on a sunny day in the hills won’t feel the same if the car can do it by itself.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.