2017-11-10 / Opinion

Hands off the wheel, Alfred

By JEFF LAGASSE
Columnist

Halloween parties thrown by adults tend to be well-stocked with booze. Being lubed up with Johnnie Walker is just about the only legitimate excuse there is for a bunch of thirty- and fortysomethings to dress up as fictional characters from comic books and sci-fi movies -- but it makes one thing in particular somewhat complicated. Transportation.

Driving impaired is just about the stupidest thing a person could do, with the possible exception of lighting a fart next to a propane tank. So that option is off the table from the get-go. A taxi or an Uber might be feasible, but only if the party takes place in a populated area; Uber has yet to expand into most country settings, and some taxi services will balk at driving to the outskirts of East Nowhere to pick up a drooling middle-aged buffoon dressed like Spider-Man. Sometimes a sober friend can give you a lift, but then you’re putting them out.

Someone, somewhere, is working on a driverless car. They need to hurry the heck up.

Technology at its worst makes things more complicated; look no further than social media, which has turned human interaction into a rage-filled digital soup. Technology at its best simplifies things, and I can’t think of anything simpler than climbing into a driverless car after a third cocktail and saying, “Back to the Batcave, Alfred!” Apparently in this fantasy my car is named Alfred. And I’m Batman.

Granted, this technology is still a ways off. There are a few prototypes on the road, and they’re surprisingly safe, using GPS satellites to orient themselves and sensing the movements of nearby vehicles. But this isn’t an ordinary gadget we’re talking about here. It’s not like an iPhone, which can be released with glitches that can later be fixed through downloadable patches. iPhone glitches mean the web browser is wonky. Driverless car glitches mean you’re suddenly staring through your windshield at a school of fish as your vehicle is swept toward one of those outsized Tarzan-style waterfalls.

Lesson: Don’t release a driverless car to market if there’s even a 1 percent chance of joyriding along the bottom of a river.

It’s a shame they’re not quite ready, though, because the applications would be immediate. The Halloween scenario is a simple example, but the driverless car isn’t just a friend to the shameless booze hound.

Take people with medical emergencies. Let’s say a random woman, we’ll call her “Jennadaniellouise,” sustains an injury in the home while attempting to hang a portrait of her grandmother riding a horse while dressed as a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. (These details are important.) Jennadaniellouise is standing tippy-toe on a stepladder when she loses her balance and falls awkwardly, breaking her ankle. Jennadaniellouise lives alone. No significant other, no kids, no pets, nothing, just a life-size cardboard cutout of a smiling Piers Morgan.

Jennadaniellouise has two options -- call for an ambulance, the expense of which would cut significantly into the funds she’s set aside for her troublesome gambling addiction, or call a friend. Only she doesn’t have friends, either. The last of them buggered off when they found out Jennadaniellouise has an unhealthy obsession with Piers Morgan and a grandmother who dresses like a Power Ranger.

But wait! Jennadaniellouise has a driverless car! She also has sleep apnea and the world’s fourth largest collection of antique cookie tins. But never mind that now! To the car, Alfred!

Driverless cars are meant for people like Jennadaniellouise. They’re also meant for people who take long road trips and have trouble staying awake; those with physical impairments; and anyone who’s blown through an intersection because they were distracted by a squirrel. Those are your bread-and-butter customers, right there.

Purists may bristle at the lack of control, preferring to take the reigns themselves. Understandable. But new research shows that autonomy may not be our safest option. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, driverless cars would only have to be moderately better than human drivers before their use would result in thousands of lives saved. In fact, if they were only 10 percent better than current drivers, they “could prevent thousands of road fatalities over the next 15 years and possibly hundreds of thousands of fatalities over 30 years,” the authors wrote. Think of how many more people would show up to our Halloween parties.

Lesson: No matter how good you think you are at driving, you likely stink.

It’ll be a few years before that 10 percent threshold is met, and it’s a shame, because there are a lot of drivers who could benefit from the technology now -- specifically, each and every maniac who’s on the road during my daily commute to work. Rather than dodging lane-switchers jockeying for position, the commute would be an orderly procedure, an elegant symphony of wheeled, metal containers quietly gliding along the asphalt like benevolent Star Wars robots. And when it’s time to return home, I’d no longer have to marshall my remaining energy to focus on not dying. I could simply program my coordinates, lay back with eyes closed, and daydream about who would win in a fight between me and Dracula. (Hint: Not me.)

That’s the dream -- or one of them, anyway. Another is achieving the perfect Halloween, and that means finding the right combination of a great costume and a carefully calibrated buzz. A driverless car would obviously help with the latter. The former’s a bit tougher, but I’m thinking next year may finally be the year I suck it up and go as a horse-riding Power Ranger.

See? I told you those details were important.

-- Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company, and had he been riding in a driverless car, he would have avoided “the incident.” Ask him about “the incident” at jelagasse@gmail.com.

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