Opinion: The Washington Post Catches Up to the Perils of Self-Driving


Nicole Glass Photography

As much as I am a news junkie, I do try to disconnect a bit on weekends. Yet, this past Sunday, I had an hour to kill and a smartphone by my side, so I perused the headlines of our major newspapers.

I needed a break from the endless discussion about the Supreme Court’s latest decision — fear not, dear reader, as I will save my thoughts on that for a more appropriate outlet — and I saw that The Washington Post’s editorial board had weighed in on the problems with autonomous driving.

Here’s the headline, for those too lazy to click through: “The problem with self-driving cars? Many don’t drive themselves.”

And the lede paragraph: “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report this month on crashes involving vehicles with automated technology. Self-driving cars may not really be the problem — the problem is cars that don’t drive themselves but manage to convince the drivers that they do.”

Here, The Post dives into a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) report about crashes involving autonomous driving.

The op-ed points out two things that most automotive journalists have been figuratively screaming from the rooftops for half a decade (or more) now. One — automated-driving systems have flaws. Two — drivers sometimes rely too much on partial autonomous systems. I also appreciate the article calling out Tesla, however mildly, for its misleading use of the term “Autopilot”.

It concludes with a reminder that even if NHTSA comes up with regulations to improve the tech, that it’s up to drivers to remember that ultimately they need to be the ones in control.

Thank you, WaPo.

I’m heartened that one of the nation’s Big Four (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, USA Today) newspapers gave a part of its opinion page — and the weight of its editorial board, for whatever that’s worth* — to a topic that’s near and dear to the heart of automotive enthusiasts and industry observers but also affects nearly everyone. But I am also dismayed — the general/mainstream press should’ve probably tackled this subject sooner.

*And that value is probably determined by each individual reader, since some of us give more weight to editorial boards than others, and even that can vary by outlet.

It’s understandable to an extent — automotive sections have been decimated at most newspapers, thanks to a variety of factors, most of which pertain to the shaky (and sometimes, insanely stupid) economics of the media business. Once upon a time, your local paper would have an auto critic who’d write a review each week and maybe a couple news/feature stories — a critic who could inform his/her readers about this topics. At the very least, a wire service story might be picked up.

Now, though, the mainstream media always seems a step slow when it comes to following developments in the automotive industry, unless they make news for the business section — or unless Elon Musk has done something attention-grabbing again.

To be fair, it may not be all bad — I do see plenty of news coverage on this topic in major outlets like WaPo, at least anecdotally. And it’s always possible there have been similar op-eds I’ve missed — I don’t have the time to read every article produced on the subject. That said, it’s nice to see people with an influentional platform reminding the public that no matter what type of autonomous-driving tech or advanced-driving aids (ADAS) their car has, they need to pay attention and drive.

TTAC has reach, but we don’t have WaPo reach.

I am no Luddite. I am not, in prinicple, necessarily opposed to autonomous driving or ADAS features. But I do believe that true autonomous driving — ie, Level 5 — is a long way off. I also believe that even in today’s cars, which are full of things like automated emergency braking systems and blind-spot monitoring warnings, the driver is ultimately in control. Autonomous tech and ADAS can be helpful in the right circumstances, but the driver must, ultimately, drive.

So it’s good to see a major media outlet put the message out there.

I am less optimistic that the public will get the message. Just yesterday, I passed a driver on the Eisenhower Expressway who was driving too slow and weaving. I thought he might be drunk, and while that’s certainly possible, I could see he was paying more attention to his phone than his task as I manuevered around him.

If we can’t get drivers to stop texting, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get them to not be overly reliant on forward-collision warning.

But the more that media outlets with giant platforms push the message of responsibility, the better.

[Image: Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock.com]

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