Self-driving cars can test soon in Washington

Wednesday, June 7, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

​Before summer fades, you might see a self-driving car on Washington roads, thanks to Gov. Jay Inslee's approval today.

Inslee's executive order allows car companies to gain permission from the state to test-drive cars that may or may not have a person behind the wheel. Inslee noted that human error causes 94% of crashes, and autonomous vehicles reduce that risk.

"I just have huge confidence in the safety aspects of this," Inslee said in a Seattle Times story, noting that automated guidance doesn't drive drunk or distracted.

Similar pilot programs are underway in other states, including Arizona, where Uber is testing autonomous vehicles.

In most cases, test vehicles carry a passenger who can take over and drive when necessary.

Yet when you hear the term "self-driving car," you likely envision a vehicle that transports people who aren't necessarily even watching the road – perhaps they're reading, talking with someone via FaceTime, or even taking a nap. Proponents talk of cars that drop their passengers off in the city, then circle the area autonomously to seek and secure a parking spot.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his new Model 3, coming in July, will have full autopilot. Before the end of this year he plans to send one from California to New York with no controls touched any time during the trip.

While some welcome self-driving cars, another segment of travelers sees trouble. A recent Washington Post article that appeared in The Bend Bulletin quotes a trucker who said, "Anything that's run by a computer is going to get messed up. They don't have no bulletproof software."

My son Sean, who works in the tech industry, says the "software is flawed" argument misses the point. "To be successful, the software just needs to be less flawed than a human driver," he said. "We're already there."

Sean went on to list examples of highly reliable software. We see it in the space program, aircraft autopilot, systems that run banks and financial institutions, and safety devices on cars. We trust those things every day, so it makes sense that autonomous cars could be next.

I can't see myself giving up the steering wheel, as long as I'm capable. I'm part of a generation that enjoys driving.

But there are younger generations who apparently think differently, who look at driving a car as a hassle and a waste of time. For them, autonomous cars offer a benefit that conjures up the Greyhound ads of my youth: "Leave the driving to us."

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