Fred Grimm

Robots could bring sanity to Florida’s lunatic roadways

In this 2015 file photo provided by his neighbor, Krista Kitchen, Joshua Brown stands by his new Tesla electric car near his home in Canton, Ohio. Brown died in an accident in Florida on May 7, 2016, in the first fatality from a car using self-driving technology.
In this 2015 file photo provided by his neighbor, Krista Kitchen, Joshua Brown stands by his new Tesla electric car near his home in Canton, Ohio. Brown died in an accident in Florida on May 7, 2016, in the first fatality from a car using self-driving technology. AP

God was her autopilot.

I’d prefer Elon Musk.

Last week, in the quaintly named Florida Panhandle town of Mary Esther, a 2005 Ford Focus veered off the road at 172 Miramar Street and crashed into a brick house. The Focus’ unfocused 28-year-old driver, who suffered minor injuries, explained to an Okaloosa County deputy sheriff that she had been praying with her eyes closed when the accident occurred.

Theologians might dispute the characterization, but, like 94 percent of all car crashes in the United States, this incident was put down to human error. The young woman was charged with reckless (not reverent) driving.

Distracted driving — I suppose eyes-shut praying comes under this category — has become a highway epidemic. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles attributed 45,740 traffic accidents in Florida to distracted driving in 2015, causing 214 fatalities and 39,396 injuries.

None of those fatalities received the international notoriety caused by a May 7 accident in the Central Florida town of Williston, when a 40-year-old former Navy Seal named Joshua Brown crashed his Tesla Model S into a trailer truck. His was a different kind of distraction.

Brown apparently had activated the highly sophisticated “Autopilot” feature on his Tesla. When the trailer pulled onto the highway in front of the electric car, the “driver assist” steering and braking computer program, with input from both cameras and radar, apparently failed to discern a white trailer juxtaposed against the afternoon sky. The automatic brake system failed to engage. The Tesla smashed into the trailer at 65 mph and Brown was killed.

Tesla’s Autopilot fatality was its first in 130 million miles of computer-assisted driving, it said.

So far in 2016 (as of Tuesday), 1,511 people have been killed in Florida traffic accidents, but Brown’s death has been the only one linked to robotic driving. Though the company website asserted that this was the “first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” critics attacked Tesla and CEO Elon Musk for the audacity of allowing drivers to activate an unperfected “beta” system on American highways. The carping about Tesla soon engulfed Silicon Valley’s fully autonomous car projects, led by Google.

Apprehension about driverless cars almost makes sense. Until you consider the cars with drivers. Particularly in South Florida, where knuckleheads behind the wheel challenge the very notion of human intellectual superiority.

Surely roadways filled with Google’s autonomous cars and autopiloted Teslas would be less harrowing than what we have now, with so many crazed subhumans making sudden, harrowing, illegal, insanely dangerous dashes in and out of the express lane on I-95.

Or the ubiquitous texter drivers. I’d prefer drunken drivers, except the damn drunks are also texting. And now we’re also sharing the highways with Pokémon Go players. On Tuesday night, police in Auburn, New York, reported that a 28-year-old driver crashed his car into a tree while playing Pokémon.

Tesla’s autopilot could hardly be more reckless than semi-sentient drivers engrossed in their iPhones, staring down at their laps instead of the road, either praying or playing Pokémon. Or maybe both. Nowadays, who can tell?

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