By now most people have heard about the death of Joshua D. Brown of Canton, Ohio, the driver of a Tesla Model S, while his car was in the “autopilot” mode. The newspapers reported that this was the first known death caused by a self-driving car.

This happened just a week after I had ordered the top-of-the-line 2016 Toyota Rav 4, with all the high-tech features such as pre-collision warning, automatic emergency breaking, intuitive parking assist, rear cross traffic alert and blind spot monitors. When I heard about the death, I wondered if I had made the right choice in ordering all the technology options, or if all those features truly keep the driver safer. Do these technological advancements cause more harm than good?

To find out, first I had to learn how to use the features, which is not as easy as it sounds. Yes I listened to the sales guy explaining the features but there were so many that I forgot about half of them by the time I got off the car dealership. I did page through some of the 3″ thick manual and decided to focus on the features that affect the driving.

For example, there are loud beeps when I try to change lanes without signaling, and there is a warning light signaling on the side mirror if I come to close to an object. I was bewildered by all these sounds, warning lights and messages. And the manual wasn’t always helpful as the pictures below show (just some of the over 55 warning screens in the Rav 4 manual).

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After a week of use, I am starting to understand how these features work and as an IT person, I tried to test the features before using them. I found it difficult to do unless I have my husband drive his car next to me to test the blind spot indicator. He did that but refused to test the pre-collision warnings where the car would automatically brake when it is too close to another car. It would be useful if Toyota could produce videos showing how to operate these features. Such videos would help to show and explain how and when the car “takes over control.”

 It makes me think, if there are all these safety features on the car, do I really need to pay as much attention to driving as before? The less I have to do, (like checking the blind spot) and the more the car is doing, will it influence the way I drive? Not likely with the options I have now, but with a self-driving car like the Tesla, I wonder if I would just sit there and do nothing but watch the car drive itself. 

In reading more about “smart” features, I came across another feature that the car industry is working on where the cars will communicate with each other via Wi-Fi (which seems somewhat Orwellian). What about privacy concerns regarding all the information a connected car would collect such as the driver’s quality of driving (speeding, constant lane changes, long drives without breaks etc.) especially if that data is made available to insurers.

This could soon become a reality. Several major auto manufacturers are already cooperating on developing such a “connected car.”

To cite Scott Belcher, CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, “the connected car is the next major step in the evolution of car safety, on par with seat belts, air bags and electronic stability control.” The difference I see between the connected car and the Tesla or Google self-driving car is that the driver maintains control of the “connected car.”

Who is in control of the car? Right now the driver is. Even with self-driving cars, the driver has the option to take over and drive the car at any time. But what will happen if it is shown that self-driving cars are safer, have less accidents and save lives? Who will be in control then?

In the meantime, car safety experts need to look very carefully at the issue of how driver control and road safety intersect. The family and friends of Joshua Brown would attest to the need to do more work on this very real and critical issue.  


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