Who Is Driving the Car?

Do you remember watching The Jetson's and thinking how exciting it would be to have a car with 'auto-pilot'? That was nearly a half a century ago. In the last five decades, car companies have been working on technologies to allow a car to practically drive by itself.

Ralph Teeters, a blind man, sensing cars were traveling on the highways at uneven speeds began working on a cruise control mechanism though the 1940's. What was once considered unpopular when it first became an option in the 1950's , is now standard in 70 percent of all new cars.

We now have cars available - both Lexis and Ford are promoting models - that will parallel park themselves. Volvo is touting a new safety braking system that will brake if you don't.

This may be exciting new technology but it also leads me to wonder - Who's Driving the Car? Many of today's drivers are distracted with other technological devices. Cell phones are owned by a majority of adults both young and old. Many homeowners are doing away with 'land lines' and opting for cell phones as a way to stay in touch. Laptops, Blackberry's, iPads, FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter - they're all ways to keep in touch with whoever it is you think you need to stay in touch with. The need to be connected at all times has reached epic levels.

There is already an outcry to ban cell phone texting while driving as well as enforcing hands-free devices while driving in the car. How complacent might a driver become if they think their car will stop for them if they become too distracted to stop themselves?

Toyota was in the headlines for several months during the investigation into some Lexis models speeding out of control. First it was believed to be floor mats sticking under the floor pedals but later investigation determined it was a computer module 'gone bad'. The auto-pilot features of parallel parking and stopping when you don't are all computer controlled. What happens in the event of a malfunction? Are there warning labels or instructions? Do you put the car in neutral? Turn off the engine? Pull a rip cord?

There are already reports of failure during testing. A video shows a test vehicle slamming into the rear of a truck. Those monitoring the demonstrations are not sure what went wrong. These tests are performed at somewhat lower speeds. It's disturbing to think what the outcome would be on a highway. Adding sensors to vehicles to alert the driver of potential danger is a good thing but taking control of the vehicle is something entirely different.

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