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This boomer doesn’t fear self-driving cars

Tuesday, May 15, 2018by  Jon Osterberg

An Uber autonomous car drives the streets of San FranciscoI'm a baby boomer who drives old classic Chevies, yet I'm not afraid of the looming autonomous-car age. In fact, I think I welcome it.

I like to drive. Always have. I drive a Silverado pickup and own a 1962 Impala and 1970 Chevelle SS that rumble delightfully as I throttle down the road. Driving for me is recreation, not just transportation.

So you might think I fear that self-driving cars will someday usurp my rightful place on the pavement. After all, those automated electric gizmos might render obsolete the very fuel my Chevies need – gasoline.

No fear here, for several reasons.

First, I'm tired of sharing the road with other drivers too intent on texting or putting on makeup. Distracted driving laws don't seem to deter the worst offenders. Maybe some of them will ride A-cars (autonomous cars), instead.

Volvo announced it won't build gas- or diesel-powered cars in 2019, perhaps the start of a trend. But gasoline won't disappear overnight. Electric vehicles comprise less than 1% of U.S. car sales, and gas will likely phase out over many years. It's not going to be abruptly banned, rendering millions of gas-powered vehicles obsolete. An MIT study says 60% of cars will still use fossil-fuel engines in 2050.

As society grows "greener" in its conservation values, will tomorrow's citizenry wrinkle its nose in disgust as I wheel about town – and to the gas station – in my gas-guzzling old Chevies? No matter. It will be good to wheel about on roads that should be safer.

A woman naps behind the wheel in a self-driving carFor example, A-cars employ all sorts of crash-avoidance sensors. They'll also come equipped to lessen highway congestion by using adaptive cruise control, which keeps traffic flowing, though at reduced speeds. That beats the alternative, stop-and-go driving.

A-cars won't quickly replace conventional autos. The technology that enables fully self-driving cars, called Level 4 autonomy, is extremely complex and expensive. A-cars will be like videotape recorders and Blu-ray players when they first came out – very expensive. I suspect cars like my Chevies will share the road with A-cars for years before the latter become widely affordable.

Futurists say fewer people will own their own cars, relying instead on shared fleets and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. If so, that could be a good thing that yields cleaner air and less-congested roads. PEMCO can attest less congestion will cause fewer accidents.

Of course, challenges remain. How will A-cars safely share roads with human-driven cars? Which party will be liable in crashes? Will auto insurers even exist as they do today?

Some question whether A-cars ever will truly become common, especially after suffering bad publicity in March when an autonomous Uber car struck and killed a bicyclist in Arizona. A-car software is not infallible, critics say.

My son argued for A-cars a year ago. "The flawed-software argument misses the point," he said. "To be successful, the software just needs to be less flawed than a human driver. We're already there."

Which makes me think of my preschool grandkids. Ask yourself: Would you buy an A-car for your own kids? Perhaps you answer, "Absolutely! They're safer, because my kids don't pay attention!"

The author's 1962 Impala and 1970 Chevelle SS on display at the Auto Angels Car ShowBut it might be your teen's own choice to shun driving. It's a different world today. Teens are delaying getting their licenses, or they're not driving altogether. Psychologists say social media and ride-hailing apps have supplanted cars as the means to friends and freedom.

Yes, I like to envision my grandkids as teenagers riding in A-cars. It's much safer than burning rubber in grandpa's Chevelle SS .

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