Columns and Letters

Column: The car that won’t kill people

-by Frank Macdonald

    The selling point for the car being advertised on TV was this special feature: the car is able to detect the presence of a pedestrian, alert you to the risk. If through human error you accidentally point the car at the pedestrian, the car will take control of the vehicle and apply the brakes, sparing another pedestrian.
    There’s something about the nature of this car’s pedestrian safety feature that I find personally disturbing.
    Every once in awhile while I am driving, an amber dash light catches my eye. It tells me the air bags are engaged. I’ve never seen air bags bloom out of the steering wheel or dashboard. I just have the manual’s word for it that the air bags are even in there, patiently waiting to save my life. Adolescent curiosity I suppose, but some times when I see the amber lettering, I wonder: ‘Just how much of a bump would it take?’ I’ve never done it, but I suppose there are those who have.
    In the same context, I wonder how tempting it would be to test the car’s special feature just once. Just once point the car at a pedestrian, hit the accelerator, and take your hands of the wheel, just to see...
    The pedestrian, of course has no knowledge of his or her role in this experiment of mine or yours. Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!
    Oh, the relief in that person’s eyes when Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant orders the car to a screeching halt just inches from bumper-to-knee contact. It is an accident that didn’t happen because the car’s ghost driver had wrested the steering wheel out of my hands and slammed a foot onto the brake just in time. No injured pedestrian, no ambulance, no police, no lawsuit. And it works 10 times out of 10.
    That’s why there’s a digital ghost now inhabiting every new model of this particular car, the product of the designer’s contempt for anyone who buys a car. On the surface, the ad is suggesting how firmly this car can keep you safe, like a parent’s embrace. The sub-text of the ad, though, reeks of contempt for drivers who would drive while texting or text while driving, who would drive while talking on a smart phone, who would drive while taking a snooze. Technology has decided that it can take better care of us than we seem to be doing as our own primary care givers.
    So now on our streets there are cars that won’t hit pedestrians, one more robot that doesn’t set off any alarms, doesn’t cause us any concern about our submissiveness to the bribes of technology. After all, wasn’t it technology that spared us the need to get up off the couch every half hour and walk all the way across the livingroom floor to change the channel, just to see what was airing on the one other channel we used to get? The remote control cured us of that extreme form of exercise. The personal computer has been this civilization’s babysitter all through this century, assuring us that we don’t have to sit all by ourselves thinking about God knows what or something even worse. So why not a car that cares?
    This pedestrian-loving car would not have been allowed on the highway if it hadn’t been thoroughly tested at the factory. They have wind tunnels to ensure that the paint can stand one of Cheticamp’s suete  winds without being stripped down to it primer. Tires turn thousands of miles on a treadmill sans blowout. So we can safely assume that the pedestrian safety feature in this vehicle is also put through its factory-testing hoops to ensure it will stop the car from bumping into or running over a pedestrian.
    The primary reason these cars are factory tested is to ensure that they will remain roadworthy  at least for the length of its warranty. The car’s Human Contact Avoidance Program is expected to pass basic training with an impeccable score. But think of the poor guy hired to stand there all day while cars zoom off the assembly line and try to run him down. But they don’t. They stop just in time. Technology, you see. But that’s an employee unlikely to volunteer for overtime.
    As I mentioned earlier, tests show the car stopped in time to save a pedestrian 10 times out of 10. That a perfect score. Any mishap that damages that perfection means it’s back to the drawing board, right after the funeral. So 10 times out of 10 it must be, and is.
    But surely the company wants to be really, really sure. Not hitting a pedestrian 20 times out of 20 times is even better that 10 out of 10. Or go for 50 out of 50. A hundred out of a hundred? A Thousand out of...?
    I don’t know the math or the physics of the thing, but I sense that the larger the numbers get, the greater is the likelihood of somebody saying, “Oooops!”
     So pedestrian-conscious cars are undoubtedly a good thing, but I wouldn’t care to be the 1000th pedestrian in a Halifax crosswalk facing a speeding car designed not to kill people.



















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