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Robot Buses & Lord of the Rings

A reporter at the Dailydot.com writes “We’re one step closer to the automated bus future of our dreams,” which tells you something about the content of nerd fantasies.

Mercedes Benz is currently testing its “Future Bus” that’s described as “an autonomous, self-driving bus that can navigate complicated routes without the aid of a human being.” The most recent test took the bus from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam 12 miles down the road to Haarlem.

Some customers are complaining about the fit & finish on Mercedes' new driverless bus.

Some customers are complaining about the fit & finish on Mercedes’ new driverless bus.

The Benz bus successfully negotiated stoplights and a tunnel while avoiding bicycles and marijuana peddlers. Naturally Dailydot types can hardly wait for the auto–bus to roll out worldwide, but I’m not so sure. Tech nerds think swapping human control for silicon control is a great idea.

While I’m picturing a 42,000–pound robot battering ram.

Just picture Grond — the battering ram used on the gates of Minas Tirith in “Return of the King” — hurtling your way because the software mistook your dark gray car for a particularly lumpy stretch of asphalt.

Sure the law requires a human driver be present at all times, just like the Tesla autopilot setting warns drivers to continue paying attention to the road while the Model S hums along. The designer’s childlike optimism in human nature expects someone who paid $70,000 for a car to sit glued to the windshield watching The Highway Channel, without even a commercial to break the tedium.

Test observations show the first thing the driver does after engaging the autopilot is to take his eyes off the road and leave the driving to Musk. The Benz bus “driver” will be using his cellphone, sending text messages and surfing the web, just like Metro drivers do everyday on Washington, DC’s no–tech busses.

I’m not certain what goal the robot bus is designed to achieve, other than increasing the boredom quotient found in unskilled labor. Replacing a human driver with no social skills with a robot with no social skills is hardly going to cause a rebirth in wheeled mass transportation.

Happenin’ people don’t think it’s cool to ride buses. Mental associations triggered by thinking of bus rides include being trapped with bullies on the way to school, prison transport and taking seniors to church. In my recollection the only instance where buses were cool was during the brief interval The Who’s “Magic Bus” was on the Top 40 charts and that was 46 years ago.

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Heretofore the closest most US drivers came to auto automation was when they engaged the cruise control, although for a surprising number of “undocumented” motorists, it’s when they breathe into the ignition interlock.

Cruise control eliminated the number one cause of stress behind the wheel: Speeding tickets. Before the invention of cruise, keeping it under the limit was so exhausting I could barely stay awake. Now I’m Reddy Kilowatt behind the wheel.

Ford tried to “enhance” the cruise experience with something called “adaptive cruise control.” This additional automation is like putting your mother in the back seat. All it does is give you motion sickness as the adaptor cuts your speed each time someone cuts you off in traffic.

There are also sinister implications to self–driving vehicles that news coverage ignores.

Most systems involve linking the car to a nationwide network, which makes it very easy for Big Brother or Big Hillary to monitor where and when you go.

Speaking of sinister, China is currently working on a self–driving car, too. Their model will take dissidents to the concentration camp at the touch of a button, without tying up valuable personnel during transport. Security officers can be breaking up the next Falun Gong meeting while the first class enemy is still enjoying his ride.

The civilian model is rumored to have an optional feature that automatically rolls the window down when passengers turn their heads to spit.

Reuters puts a nice spin on living in a totalitarian state when it says China has “regulatory structure that could put it ahead in the popular adoption of autonomous cars on its highways and city streets.”

Persuading Chinese consumers to buy or even ride in a car with no way to open the doors from the inside may require some patriotic exhortation. Or a few visits to a self–criticism session.

Still Li Yusheng, head of the autonomous auto program at Chongqing Changan, remains optimistic, “If we can convince the government that every company, every car on the road must use this (single standard) … then there is a chance China can beat the rest of the world”

And if they can just lure Mercedes into building a plant in China they can steal the blueprints in no time.

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About Michael R Shannon