Driverless Cars Already Common Here

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California is once again on the bleeding edge of technology. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making it legal for driverless cars to ramble down highways, the caveat being for now that somebody has to be in the driver’s seat in case something goes awry. This allows companies such as Google and others to continue to do research on self-driving cars. Apparently states such as California see this as the Next Big Thing in automotive technology.

This would free up people work on their laptops while commuting to work, cut down on accidents since all these driverless vehicles would presumably communicate with each other and stop those annoying rear-enders. It also will provide more mobility for people with disabilities and presumably allow senior citizens to keep driving long past when the driver’s license folks might take away their privileges. And driverless cars are more fuel-efficient, the argument goes, because a computer drives more effectively than a human. In other words, Hal the Supercomputer won’t slam it to the floor and switch lanes just to gain an extra car length, wasting valuable fuel.

From what I have observed, the driverless car program arrived in Texas about the time cell phones became popular. There are plenty of folks here who are ostensibly behind the wheel but engaged in everything except driving — texting, talking on the phone, playing Angry Birds — as well as the old-fashioned inside-the-auto activities of applying eye shadow, eating cheeseburgers, or changing the radio station. So we already have our own pilot program of driverless cars, just a considerably more dangerous version — since there isn’t a computer actually piloting that Ford F-150 that just veered over into my lane. No, that truck is “driven” by a teen-ager who is attempting to text and drive while spitting tobacco juice out the window, all at the same time.

But let us not just pick on teenagers. We are surrounded by driverless cars, non-driven by humans of all shapes, ages and sizes behind the steering wheels. A few months ago we were stuck in traffic on I-35 south of Austin, crawling along because of a wreck ahead. As we slowly passed each vehicle, our family kept count. Nine of 10 drivers were either texting or talking on a cell phone. Admittedly, traffic was only going 10 mph at most. But seriously?

I plead guilty to having personally been behind the wheel of a driverless car in the past, but I have reformed my ways. Now I confine my in-vehicle texting to when I’m stopped at a traffic light. Besides, the universe of people I need to text is embarrassingly small. I’m just not that important, unlike the average teen that sends 60 texts a day according to the Pew Research Center. I think our teen is certainly above average in many aspects but certainly in the texting category. Once she starts driving, we will require her to keep the phone locked in the trunk when behind the wheel. That’s a promise.

Anyway, I am skeptical this driverless car concept will catch on in East Texas for a couple of reasons. For one thing, many of the small towns behind the Pine Curtain rely heavily on traffic fines to support government. Strike out in any direction along those winding ribbons of asphalt where the loblolly pines blot out most of the sky, and when the speed limit drops suddenly from 70 mph to 50, then down to 45, odds are great a police cruiser is lurking nearby. Driverless cars presumably would be punctilious about obeying the speed limit, thus depriving places such as Malakoff, Ore City and Corrigan of much-needed revenue. (These are all hamlets where either my Beautiful Mystery Companion or I have received speeding tickets or warnings in recent years, so I speak from hard experience.)

For another, during deer season it just wouldn’t be the same, riding around in the passenger seat with a big buck strapped to the hood and nobody behind the wheel — assuming the vehicles truly became driverless in the future. That just doesn’t seem very macho, even if the gun rack remains filled.

One benefit would be that driverless vehicles would actually utilize turn signals, which rarely wear out in vehicles used in small-town East Texas since people are loath to use them, figuring everybody knows where they’re going anyway.

Like so many things that make it big on the Left Coast — arugula, the Kardashians, carrying little white dogs in purses — driverless cars are an affectation that just isn’t going to catch on here. We are far too fond of our pickups and SUVs.

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