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Self-Driving Cars Face Unexpected Challenges

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, driverlesss cars actually required the quick input of a human driver 2,578 times during testing in 2016. And that’s in California, where the people and the road conditions are beautiful!

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As I was driving to work today, I realized that autonomous vehicles face far bigger challenges than just consumer acceptance.

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They need to be able to navigate the craters, caverns and chasms that make up the majority of Akron, OH’s roads halfway through winter.

Far be it from me to disparage the efforts of the Ohio Highway Department to keep roads driveable during our long, bleak winter months. One day the streets are covered with 4 inches of slush, the next day birds are singing and it’s 52 degrees until, overnight, snow and freezing rain move back in again. They face a real challenge that, unfortunately, often results in motorists focusing more on steering around potholes and watching out for the guy in the next lane doing the exact same thing than watching the road ahead. Can you imagine a self-driving car doing the same thing?

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According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, driverlesss cars actually required the quick input of a human driver 2,578 times during testing in 2016. And that’s in California, where the people and the road conditions are beautiful!

Oh, sure, there are probably 10 times that many stupid moves made by inattentive, distracted or otherwise unsafe drivers every day, so Google, Tesla, Nissan, Mercedes and all of the other car makers testing autonomous vehicles should rethink their test procedures – and locations.

As I suggested, try to get from Akron to Cleveland and back without hitting a pothole that snaps your entire steering assembly. Drive through Fort Lauderdale and Miami between 3 and 7 pm – you’ll be facing the buffet crowd of Snowbirds from the North. Does that left turn signal really mean anything even though it’s been flashing for the last seven miles?

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And, as Jalopnik and the Boston Globe point out, seagulls in Boston are reminding even the smartest engineers that you have to expect the unexpected.

Apparently, one bird is small enough  that the car assumes it can be ignored. But a flock of them on the road appears to be a large object that needs to be avoided – maybe. Because they might fly away. Or they might not. Because they’re stupid birds.

Here in Akron, we have seagulls too, though we’re hundreds of miles from any sea and quite a ways even from Lake Erie. But what are even more concerning are the huge flocks of Canadian geese that make the annual southward migration all the way to every pond in Northeast Ohio. These huge, angry birds wander around parking lots and streets as if they’re afforded some legal protection. Oh wait – they are. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Ohio state law protect the geese and goslings, so when they take over in springtime, things get really interesting.

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My suggestion: if you want to get somewhere without driving yourself, hop in a cab, Uber, Lyft, or on a bus or subway.

Instead of focusing billions of dollars on technology that makes vehicle ownership even less interesting than ever, I’d love to see each car manufacturer develop some affordable, attractive and, above all, interesting vehicles that will spur the imaginations of the younger generation.

Frankly, the reason my son isn’t excited about cars isn’t his phone – it’s the fact that he drives a sturdy, reliable 1999 Ford Taurus sedan. Nothing wrong with it, but there’s no speed shop in the world that sells the stuff that will make his car look cool to his buddies.

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WE all understand that cars are so much more than transportation from place to place…and SEMA’s “Take a Kid to a Car Show” awareness program can be a good way to help the next generation understand the fun of getting behind the wheel.

Otherwise, I fear the only car-related fun they’ll have is watching videos of self-driving cars being tortured by Mother Nature’s minions.  n

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