May 6, 2024

Are Self-Driving Cars also Self-Crashing Cars?

An automotive update from our labs (our spaniels were on vacation)

By Ed Goldman

Face it: The self-driving car was never the equal of a self-cleaning  oven. While both could cause you serious harm, odds are good that the self-cleaning oven would never veer suddenly in your kitchen and fatally collide with, say, your dishwasher.

I mention this because a report last week on CBS News revealed that self-driving cars may not be all they’re cracked up to be (pun intended, though certainly not without regret). 

Edgy Cartoon

A case of domestic appliance

“Self-driving cars have been crowned the future of the automotive industry, but in their current form, the software powering those vehicles is stuck in the present,” the story says. “One significant flaw in the self-driving systems has yet to be worked out, according to experts.” In case of a likely accident, for example, the systems give back control “to the human driver without enough time for someone to avoid a collision…. In other words, the software does not know how to react when the unexpected happens, such as an animal darting onto the road.”

Tell me the last-time a self-cleaning oven pulled a fast one like that on you. Did it go something like this?

OVEN: Man, you use a lot of Wesson oil to roast a chicken. I’ve been at this for, like, an hour, and my walls still look like those of the garage where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened. May I just say “Yuck?”

(The sound of whirring fans abruptly stop.)

YOU: Hey, what’re you doing?

OVEN: Turning control back to you, Lazy. 

YOU: Me? But I don’t know how to clean an oven!

OVEN: You don’t know how to roast a chicken either, Sloborini. I’m calling my shop steward. 

YOU: Not—?

OVEN: That’s right. The Maytag repairman. At Sears.

YOU: Hate to tell you this, but Sears went out of business.

OVEN: Really? Then guess whose warranty isn’t worth  squat? Now move out of the way. I’m gonna go crash into the refrigerator. That running-all-night routine of his has made me downright sleep-deprived. For a while, I had to take sleeping pills.

YOU: How’d you get over it?

OVEN: Because I’m self-cleaning-and-sober. 

The self-driving car is “not a perfect science yet,” according to Robert Sumwalt, CBS News’ transportation safety analyst and a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Right now it’s like trying to send a rocket to the moon in 1910 when the Wright Brothers were still working on their planes.”

Well, no offense, Bob, but the Wright Brothers made history with their first manned, self-sustained plane flight seven years before that. (Does the name Kitty Hawk ring a bell? It’s neither the name of a young predatory cat nor the cocktail waitress at Aviators—The Fly-by-Nightclub.)

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Anyway, how do we know for a fact what was on Orville and Wilbur Wright’s minds in 1903—other than “How’d we get these dorky names? That’s why we never got to hang with the cool kids in the school cafeteria.”

I’m suggesting what happened that day in North Carolina—whose motto, I believe, is “Do we really need a South Carolina, Too? Aren’t I enough?”—may have actually been a colossal disappointment for the lads. 

REPORTER: My God, boys, this is amazing! Your plane flew 852 feet! 

ORVILLE: We were shooting for 238,900 miles.

REPORTER: What?! Why?

WILBUR: That’s how far it is to the moon. So we undershot our mark by about 1.2 million feet.

ORVILLE: Give or take a few hundred yards.

REPORTER (To himself) No wonder the cool kids didn’t want to eat lunch with them.

WILBUR: Hey, what about next time we make a self-flying plane? 

ORVILLE: Or…oven!?

WILBUR: Even better. Come on, Bro’, the lime-ades are on me!

(The two begin high-fiving each other—anachronistically, of course, but these guys were visionaries.) 

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).