Anyone who enjoys automation has to be entertained by the progress of the self-driving car. The latest news stories pit Google against the conventional automakers, with Google demonstrating driverless cars — no steering wheel or other driver controls — and conventional carmakers taking a piecewise, incremental approach with technologies such as lane departure warning, interval controls and automatic emergency braking. Automakers say the whole "personal automobile” concept requires a vehicle owner/operator, while Google is suggesting that cars can become more of a service or utility provided by a company that's ultimately responsible for rider safety.
Google's excellent safety record and data-intensive, high-technology approach (the cars only work in areas where Google has programmed them with maps that detail the route down to curb locations and heights) has the company confident that it can make driverless cars safe enough for company owners to accept total responsibility.
It's not because the automation is totally reliable — of course, it isn't. It's because people are pretty much totally unreliable. Then they sue. You'd think the automakers would jump at the chance to eliminate drivers. From the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle to today's GM ignition switch fiasco, automakers' liabilities have often been the largest when they've been blamed for defects that only turn lethal when combined with driver negligence, inattention or stupidity.
For example, from the size of the recall itself and the publicity about it, you might think the 11 fatalities attributed to faulty GM ignition switches were due to ignition switch failures. But we know that automobile engines can lose power or stop running at any time for any number of reasons, and cars are designed to be safely turned and stopped with the engines off.
Car & Driver magazine tested a 185,000-mile Saturn Ion with a torque sensor on the wheel and pressure sensor on the brake pedal. They measured steering and braking efforts with the engine on and off, and concluded that any driver with "presence of mind” should be able to stop the car safely or shift it to neutral and restart it.
The magazine wrote that four of the drivers involved in the 11 fatal accidents linked to faulty GM switches were reportedly impaired by drugs or alcohol. A witness observed that another driver, who had a history of epilepsy, was slumped over the wheel immediately before the collision. Seven of the 13 crash victims were unbelted.
We saw similar driver interactions in the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire situation, where Ford specified tires that were not as strong as they could have been and a relatively low tire pressure to reduce the probability of rollover accidents. When drivers ran the SUVs fast on hot days with an under-inflated tire, it might blow out. Car & Driver simulated that situation and found the Explorer as easy to bring to the shoulder as any similar vehicle with a sudden flat.
Audi's contribution to its cars sudden, unintended acceleration was traced to statistically anomalous pedal positioning and driver error. Toyota's came down to the possibility of stacked floor mats and driver error. Car & Driver floored the throttles on several Toyota products and found them easy to stop by using the brakes to overcome the engine, whether or not the driver shut the ignition off first.
"A car that loses power while being driven can be dangerous, and General Motors unquestionably failed its customers by building cars for years with ignition switches that didn't meet the company's own specifications,” the magazine wrote. "Yet the dominant narrative—that the cars were shutting down, causing them to become uncontrollable and preventing airbags from deploying—doesn't hold up. The truth is most cars have an Achilles' heel. Sometimes two, when you factor in the driver.”