Head Shake - Careening Into the Future!

Chris Kallfelz
by Chris Kallfelz

Better cinch that chinstrap.

It’s bad enough our fellow human beings find us seemingly irresistible to run into, and now it appears they may have sent their machines after us too.

As first reported in the Mercury News, December 7, 2017, it was a day that will likely live in infamy for one Oscar Nilsson. Oscar is one of us, a motorcyclist, and a San Francisco-area commercial photographer by trade, who was thrust quite literally into the annals of alleged blind-as-a-bat motoring history when the 21st Century version of “Robbie the Robot” driving his Chevy Cruise Autonomous Vehicle allegedly ran into him. He became – to my knowledge – the first motorcyclist to be struck by an autonomous car that arguably couldn’t see squat on a public road. Just who or what was at fault is a matter of debate.

GM Cruise Autonomous Car and Motorcycle Collide in San Francisco

It was only a matter of time before untold man-hours of scientific research and field testing finally paid off in producing an autonomous vehicle capable of running into motorcyclists almost as well as their human-piloted counterparts, or not, depending upon whose attorneys you want to believe.

Forgive me for anthropomorphizing whatever sophisticated array of sensors, software, and gizmos comprise the fourth generation Chevy Cruise AV, but it seems easier to grasp than saying Oscar was involved in a traffic accident with a glorified Roomba. I can’t ascribe blame to a glorified Roomba; that’s just a bridge too far for me.

We will all get to see whether it is a bridge too far for our court system, as Oscar has obtained the services of an attorney and sued General Motors, the company that gave the car keys to Robbie. Oscar is claiming that Robbie the Robot was negligent in knocking him to the ground while he was legally lane-splitting and was thus responsible for his injuries and damages. Robbie the Robot denies all this. Well, Robbie doesn’t so much, but his attorneys from General Motors, the company that built and programmed Robbie, do. Turns out a computer’s attorneys are no different than a human’s attorneys. Who knew?

Here Robbie details the status of his situational awareness the day of the crash with the aid of his NASA-supplied interpreter

And this is just the start. Some have forecast a not-so-rosy future for those of us with two-wheeled proclivities, or a penchant for performance vehicles in general, in this oncoming automated world. One such harbinger of woe is no less a luminary than Bob Lutz; a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, a “car guy” of the highest order, who has held executive positions with BMW, Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, and who is a performance nut who enjoys twisting the throttle on a Suzuki Hayabusa for giggles and reportedly has a brace of BMW motorcycles. Lutz played a large role in making the Dodge Viper a reality, so this guy is one of us, G-forces get him off the couch, and he’s been in the position to see the future. Cripes, Lutz has made the future at times.

It is one thing for hand wringing moto-scribes to bemoan the decline of western personal mobility in general, and interest in motorcycles specifically, but it’s another thing entirely when Bob Lutz in a recent issue of Automotive News says the whole shooting match is over: cars, bikes, trucks; driving or riding anything. To be replaced by sitting. And all of this inside of 20 years!

“The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

Let that sink in for a moment.

“The tipping point will come when 20 to 30% of vehicles are fully autonomous. Countries will look at the accident statistics and figure out that human drivers are causing 99.9% of the accidents. Of course, there will be a transition period. Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap or trade it on a module.”

A “module”? That won’t play in Peoria. How could even the most wild-eyed advocate of autonomous vehicles propose eliminating human-piloted vehicles altogether and not expect significant pushback? Who here wants to trade in their Ducati on a “module”? No? I thought as much.

“My reply was that we don’t need public acceptance of autonomous vehicles at first. All we need is acceptance by the big fleets: Uber, Lyft, FedEx, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, utility companies, delivery services. Amazon will probably buy a slew of them. These fleet owners will account for several million vehicles a year.”

If these vehicles are truly autonomous why can’t they negotiate a roadway with other road users as being tested and fielded now? If they can’t, are they really, “fully autonomous”? If the prerequisite for fully autonomous vehicles to be truly fully autonomous as such that every other vehicle on the road has to also be fully autonomous, these are no longer fully autonomous vehicles at all; this is glorified mass transit.

Bob Lutz is a lifelong advocate of autonomy, the human kind.

And this is progress? For who? The Amazons, Ubers, and Apples of the world who may sell or use them? Undoubtedly. For the, “Safety at all costs” crowd? Absolutely. For the guy with the mile-long driveway in North Dakota who wants to top off his tanks and haul some straw to the back-40 before the next blizzard blows in from Alberta? Not so much. And for those with sporting pretensions – car and motorcycle enthusiasts – what of us? Our autonomy will have been legislated right off the tarmac, the tarmac all our gas taxes paid for.

To listen to Lutz this is worse than some post-apocalyptic Mad Max sequel. At least with that you might run into Tina Turner and you could ride your old Z-1. No, this is safety and efficiency run amok chasing the almighty dollar.

“But dealerships are ultimately doomed,” Lutz says. “And I think Automotive News is doomed. Car and Driver is done; Road & Track is done. They are all facing a finite future. They’ll be replaced by a magazine called Battery and Module read by the big fleets.

“The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it — all will be gone in 20 years.”

And you and me along with it, gentle reader. Gone, banned by legislative fiat, verboten. The irony is our first-world status, both as a tech leader and as a Western economic engine, means we who claim to be the freest nation in the world will lose our ability to move about without relinquishing those duties to a machine, whereas all the countries held up by our President as “shitholes” will serve as shining examples of that highway on the hill, where you can still saddle up on your knock-off Honda scooter and go tear-assing around to your heart’s delight just leaning on the horn the whole time. That is if Lutz is remotely right in his prophecy, anyway.

There is no reason this must be a foregone conclusion. The University of Michigan and Virginia Tech have both been doing actual road testing of autonomous vehicles that would co-exist with other road users just fine, including motorcycles. We reported as much a few years ago: Head Shake – Dodging the Daft.

Just because this new robo-world might satisfy Amazon’s or Apple’s every conceivable want or need doesn’t mean we have to be subject to it. It matters little to me if an at-fault automated Amazon truck runs me over versus an Isuzu turbo diesel dump-body truck full of mulch piloted by an unlicensed Namibian immigrant without insurance. At least Amazon would pay for its mistake. And things like liberty, freedom and autonomy would be preserved for the oddballs that prefer such antiquated notions. They can have my ride when they pry it from my cold, dead autonomous hands.

Ride hard, keep your eyes out of the instrument pod, and look through your corner.

Chris Kallfelz
Chris Kallfelz

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2 of 62 comments
  • Disqus_iqqLuguva2 Disqus_iqqLuguva2 on Feb 10, 2018

    I don't think legislation will be necessary. Raising insurance rates will do the trick. The insurance industry is the tail that wags us.

    And why assume that autonomous cars will be popular? They'll always drive at the speed limit. Always! They'll come to full stops at stop signs. Always! They'll be super cautious at gas station queues and crowded intersections and roundabouts. They'll never pass on country roads when they're stuck behind slowass drivers. They'll flood city streets with slow-moving cars carrying just one passenger each. They'll turn quiet side streets into freeways, and freeways into chain accidents waiting to happen.

  • Douglas Douglas on Feb 18, 2018

    Since this article (and those similar, where the comments are overwrought with opinions, pontification, speculation, et al) has opened a wide door, I predict it may well become the longest blog in the history of MO.....