Thursday, September 22, 2016

Out of Control

A lot of newer cars are adding an auto-braking system where if the car scenes an imminent collision, it automatically slams on the brakes. As noted in this NPR article, most cars sold in the U.S. are going to have this by 2022. And "experts" say it could prevent 20% of collisions.

But I'm worried about the loss of driver control these systems represent.

I was driving over Snoqualmie Pass last year to go to an in-law holiday celebration that has been dubbed "Thanksmas." Snoqualmie Pass is known for its bad winter weather with heavy snows and sometimes icy conditions. And, it seems, Thanksmas always happens on one of the worst days for weather on the pass. And this year was no exception.

I was driving along at maybe 50 mph on packed snow on the road. I was in the right lane of the two-lane interstate highway. My wife gasped as she saw the problem first (I was concentrating on the road). There were multiple overturned cars along the side of the road. And, I realized, there was a semi truck stopped in my lane directly ahead. I put the brakes on, not hard but hard enough to, I hoped, stop in time. The car kept going as the ice I didn't realize was there and was providing no traction. I knew if I simply kept my foot on the brake I'd slide into the back of the semi truck. I also knew that in a slide, turning the wheel to steer the car is useless because you have no traction.

I couldn't go into the left lane because there was a car there. I looked and saw that the right shoulder was empty except for a man standing near it talking on his cell phone. I calculated there was enough room between him and the truck for my car.

I took my foot of the brake, which restored enough traction I could turn the car toward the shoulder. Once I was aimed at the shoulder and not the truck, I applied the brakes again, hard. The rumble strip helped, and the car stopped before hitting the snowbank. I missed the man standing there by maybe a foot. Maybe less. But no one was hurt and no vehicles were damaged. When the truck started moving again, I pulled in behind it, this time being more careful as I now knew how slick the road actually was.

But, here's my concern. If my car had automatic braking, would the car have, thinking I was about to hit the truck, slammed on the brakes when I stopped braking, leaving me out of control and sliding into the truck? Would the automatic braking caused an accident I was able to avoid? Would the loss of driver control because the car wouldn't know the road was icy, slam me into the back of that truck?

It's this loss of control that automatic braking systems cause that worries me. Maybe for the driver who doesn't pay attention, automatic braking is a good thing. But for a driver who knows what they are doing, it could cause an accident where the driver could have prevented it.

And as cars grow more and more autonomous, will they be able to handle adverse conditions such as snow, ice, or heavy rain?


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