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Tech Savvy: Self-driving cars coming (soon) to a garage near you

A self-driving vehicle on the roadways, especially in this age of Apple, Google and Uber, is less part of a far-fetched future and more like an inevitability just around the corner. Photo illustration 1 / 2
Frank Lee2 / 2

Some believe self-driving cars offer convenience, safety, fuel savings and alternatives for those who can't or don't like to get behind the wheel and on the road—and then there is the rest of us.

A self-driving vehicle on the roadways, especially in this age of Apple, Google and Uber, is less part of a far-fetched future and more like an inevitability just around the corner.

Using a multitude of vehicle-mounted sensors, cameras, GPS and/or other high-tech equipment, a vehicle that steers, accelerates, brakes and parks may appeal to many but not to me.

As a commuter, I can appreciate the benefits of a self-driving car, which would eliminate many of the needless and preventable injuries and fatalities due to human error, or texting and driving.

For example, I could binge watch on a headrest-mounted display, or on my laptop or tablet, "Game of Thrones" or maybe more fitting, anything related to autonomous Herbie the Love Bug.

"To err is human, to forgive is divine," as the saying goes, and the impetus and rationale for creating self-driving vehicles is anytime a human driver is involved there's a risk of crashing.

And you'll also then "forgive" me for being skeptical of the public's willingness to embrace an almost sentient vehicle requiring no human touch or guidance along the way to its destination.

I won't bore you or bog you down with the technical aspects of such "wondrous" transportation other than to say several automakers and high-tech giants of Silicon Valley are banking on it.

And the Trump administration recently unveiled updated safety guidelines for self-driving cars intended to allow more test vehicles on the road, so motorists better get used to seeing them.

Self-driving cars have been tested on public roads since Google started trying it in 2010. A federal study in 2014 found traffic crashes in America cost $836 billion annually in total economic loss, and human error causes 94 percent of crashes.

While European and Asian countries have adopted mass transit as a safe and efficient way of transportation, I'm willing to bet that the manifest destiny, "Go west, young man!" of the pioneers that settled the great wilderness that was once North America isn't going to go along quietly.

"Christine" is a Stephen King classic about a Plymouth Fury with an evil mind of its own, which taps into the primal fears of being a slave to technology, subjugated by a machine we created.

Michael Bay's "Transformers" film franchise also brought our anxiety of automobile domination to life as Autobots and Decepticons battle each other—with people as collateral damage.

But LeBron James, the NBA basketball superstar, is appearing in Intel-produced ads aimed at allaying the public's fear of the unknown i.e. self-driving cars. The marketing campaign will lead up to the Oct. 17 season opener between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

As for myself, nothing I can imagine is more frightening than an 18-wheeler "barrelling down the highway"—it always seem to "barrel" in my vision, not "saunter," "stroll" or "lollygag"—nothing scarier, I think, than being a motorist who looks up and sees no one driving the semitrailer.

Do people text and drive? Yes. Are humans prone to making mistakes? Of course, they are. But machines and software are not infallible; they break down, go offline, crash and/or get infected.

And road rage is a serious problem, but self-driving cars makes me wonder who motorists will blame (and use an offensive hand gesture) for imagined slights when there is no one or no minority—women, elderly, teens, immigrants—in the driver's seat, sharing our nation's roads.

The more we rely on things other than ourselves, the less control we have, and self-driving cars are the latest example. Automobiles can be very dangerous, very lethal killing machines, in the wrong hands, which is why drivers are licensed only after passing a written and physical test.

But it isn't hard to imagine self-driving cars—with their electronics and software—would be also susceptible to hacking, just like the 2016 presidential election, and then all sorts of things can really go wrong, which makes me want to put the brakes on self-driving cars in our future.

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