The future is freaky

Cars will soon be able to drive themselves, and that’s when I’m going to start walking

Blog Entry October 13, 2011

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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Cruise control
When you see a group of young people in the San Francisco Bay Area parked in their hybrid cars having an argument, you’d be forgiven for assuming that it’s just some hipsters who can’t agree on which National Public Radio program is best. 
However, that’s what automotive history looked like this past August, when Google’s prototype self-driving car had its first accident.
The modified, automated Prius uses a roof-mounted camera, radar sensors and lasers to drive without any human assistance. Unfortunately none of that high-tech gear was able to prevent the five-car fender-bender near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. 
The Google Prius rear-ended another Prius, which then hit a Honda Accord, which then hit another Accord, which then hit yet another Prius.
Google said the car was being driven manually by a human tester when the accident took place, which just underscores the need for the accuracy of an automated driving system to reduce the number of traffic-related injuries and deaths.
It’s also a good reminder to be careful of who you flip off these days—no one wants to be the beta tester for robot road rage.

 

Directions do not compute
If your GPS told you to drive off a bridge, would you?
More and more drivers are doing just that by putting more trust in their GPS than their own common sense. 
In July, a family spent three days stuck in California’s Death Valley after Nell, their GPS, routed their path along roads that haven’t existed in 40 years. When they were finally located by a rescue helicopter, everyone was OK except Nell, who by then had been rechristened by the family with a string of four-letter words. 
In June, three attendees to a Costco convention in Seattle were following GPS directions back to their hotel when the unit led them down a boat launch and into the waters of the Mercer Slough. The women were able to escape in time to watch their rented Mercedes SUV slowly sink into the muddy channel.
Best of all, in May a judge threw out a lawsuit against Google filed by a Utah woman who was hit by a car while following walking directions provided by Google Maps.
The plaintiff said that her Google Maps BlackBerry app told her to walk along Deer Valley Drive for a half-mile, which she discoverd was actually a highway with no sidewalks. 
She forged on anyway and, after being hit by a car, decided that Google owed her $100,000. Fortunately in court, common sense finally prevailed.  

 

There’s an app for that 
MIT, the lofty research institution that brought you Doppler radar and voice-recognition technology, is about to blow your mind again. Get ready for an iPhone app that helps you avoid red lights.
Researchers at MIT believe the new app, called SignalGuru, can help motorists drive in sync with traffic lights in order to reduce idling time and thereby improve fuel efficiency.
Through an iPhone mounted on the dashboard, SignalGuru uses GPS and the iPhone’s camera to determine how fast the driver should approach each oncoming traffic light in order to avoid any red lights.
The system was tested in Cambridge, Mass., and researchers found that varying speed to avoid idling at intersections cut fuel consumption by a whopping 20%.
A cell-phone app might not be as sexy as nuclear fission, which was pioneered at MIT during World War II, but then again you can’t buy nuclear fission for 99 cents at the App Store. (Not yet, anyway.) R&B

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