Opinion

GWEN ROCKWOOD: Robots belong in house, sweeping dust and ordering cereal, not on road

If you watched the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, you may have noticed that most of the car commercials were for a specific type of car -- electric. Electric cars and crypto currency were the two things promoted the most during the year's most expensive commercial time slots.

When our middle kid leaves the nest for college this fall and takes his car with him, Tom and I will need to buy another vehicle since we'll be down to one. So we're thinking about getting the kind that doesn't need unleaded.

Going electric makes sense to me lately. We're already plugging in plenty of things that need charging around here – phones, watches, headphones. Why not charge up the car, too?

While I'm intrigued by the idea of an electric car, I haven't warmed up to the concept of self-driving cars. My inner control freak finds it disturbing. Machines are useful, and technology is fascinating, but we've all seen evidence of when technology and machines fail. And no one -- meaning me! -- wants that to happen when an 18-wheeler is headed straight at her going 75 miles per hour.

I'm all for safety features like blind spot detection, lane-keeping and automatic braking. It's comforting to have an extra set of "eyes" to keep me and the people around me safe. I'm just not sure I want the primary set of eyes to belong to the car. Self-driving cars might not understand that sometimes other people on the road are unpredictable, reckless and occasionally downright nonsensical. But as people, we get it. Some of us are even related to those kinds of drivers.

For now at least, using cruise control is about as much as I can trust a car careening down the interstate. I can't imagine wanting a car to change lanes or make turns without me knowing about it ahead of time. Maybe I'll change my mind as I get older and my eyes and reflexes age like a 1973 Volkswagen. We'll see.

If the Alexa smart speaker in my kitchen misunderstands me when I ask her to put cereal on our shopping list, how is it possible that a self-driving car won't goof up something far more important -- like steering? Have you ever watched a robotic vacuum cleaner navigate around a room? I watched ours vacuum the living room a few times and then had to look away because the inefficiency of its cleaning route was making me crazy.

Me: "Robot, what are you doing? You just drove right past some lint and then turned left before you got to the clump of dog hair. Can't you see what's right in front of you?"

Robot vacuum: Hmmm...

Me: "Well, if you're not going to do it right, I might as well do it myself."

Robot vacuum: Hmmm...

(The robot vacuum isn't nearly as chatty as our Alexa speaker, who one time put "SpaghettiOs" on our shopping list even though I clearly said "Cheerios." But at least she tries. Also, Alexa has never once steered me into a head-on car collision, which I appreciate about her.)

And that brings us back to cars. I vote yes for electric car charging stations and avoiding the rising prices at the gas pump. I also vote yes for letting a car's safety feature slam on my brakes if it "sees" that I'm about to rear-end someone. But until technology gets a whole lot more foolproof, I think I'll stay safely buckled in the driver's seat.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Her book is available on Amazon.

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