Let me get this out of the way, right at the beginning: I despise the idea of the autonomous vehicle. The ascent of the autonomous car means the end of the autonomous driver. Even if you don’t enjoy any aspect of driving whatsoever, you should be wary of handing over control to systems that—let’s face it—will be slapped together using the same moronic “” processes that have destroyed software development in the past decade. If you don’t like the way your phone crawls to a dead halt when you try to do two different tasks, you will despise the way your autonomous car behaves after the first half-baked upgrade. Trust me on this.
Yet after experiencing what I will always remember as the “seven-crash Saturday” last week, I’m just about ready to hand over control of my car to the electronic overlords ... providing, of course, that everybody else in the American South has to do the same.
Let me explain. Every summer, my son visits his grandfather in Hilton Head, SC. On Saturday, when his visit was over, we drove the 680 miles back to Ohio.
This should be a trouble-free drive; the weather is usually good, there are no holidays that coincide with our trip, and we’re going north on a Saturday, which should be less dramatic than going south on a Saturday or north on a Sunday. Most years it’s been a long but uneventful drive. Not this time.
In the course of just 240 miles, we saw seven crashes. Unlike the near-fatal single-car accident we witnessed on the way down to South Carolina two weeks ago, all seven of these incidents involved at least two vehicles. Three of them involved three vehicles, and one of them involved as many as six—it was hard to tell because there were so many emergency vehicles scattered around.
The vast majority of the cars involved in the crashes were actually trucks, minivans, or crossovers. I only saw two standard-height cars by the side of the road. This might reflect the changing demographic of auto buyers in general and Southern auto buyers in particular, but it also might reflect something that we all feel in our bones even if we can’t prove it with numbers: The people who drive those bland jacked-up boxes just don’t give a damn about paying attention.
I didn’t see any mechanical or external factors. No spilled oil, no obstacles in the roads, no rogue construction vehicles like the careless tractor that backed out in front of my brother’s 944 15 years ago and caused him to pirouette backwards around it at a speed that was probably just a wee bit high for conditions. All seven of these incidents were caused by people running into each other. For no reason. On a freeway where everybody was going in the same direction, the weather was Disney perfect, and there were relatively few 18-wheelers.
Yet—and this is important—many of the big rigs I saw were blocking the left lane. I’ve written about this in the past, because it’s a pet peeve of mine. There’s no reason for these trucks to be in the left lane. I don’t care if everybody’s toilet paper shows up half an hour late. Because when you have trucks dawdling in the left lane, then you have what I saw happen dozens of times in just four hours of driving: you have right-lane rushing.
The minute a truck starts blocking the left lane on a Southern freeway, some yahoo in an SUV or CUV gets in the right lane, floors the throttle, and blows by everybody else with a 30-mph speed differential, trying to “shoot the gap” between the nose of the left-lane-bandit truck and whatever traffic is in the right lane ahead of him. If he misjudges it, he has to hit the ABS at max engagement and swerve so he doesn’t ram the car in the right lane. Given that at least three of the accidents I saw were plain-and-simple following-too-closely hits, it seems reasonable that this tactic accounted for a few of them. They were on the right shoulder, not the left.
As bad as this is, however, it’s worse if the right-lane rusher actually succeeds in his narcissistic mission. ‘Cause then five more people try it immediately. Now you have a de facto fast lane on the right side, with left lane traffic doing 50mph and right lane traffic doing 85-90 trying to get past the truck. The truck driver can’t see to his right well enough to move over—there isn’t a lot of visibility over there, and when you have SUVs ripping up with a 40mph speed differential it becomes outright deadly to move over. So the truck stays on the left side and people continue to stream past on the right.
You would expect that when this eventually breaks down, you will have cars with crushed left front fenders (from trying to squeeze in but failing) and crushed right rear quarter panels (from being hit without warning from the blind spot.) And you would expect that the accidents would end up retiring to the left shoulder. And sure enough, the other crashes I saw all followed that pattern.
Each one of those crashes caused a traffic jam as people slowed down to stare at the carnage on the left shoulder. Which caused more people to rush up the right lane in an attempt to get past all of it. Which caused more trouble.
Some of the aggressive behavior I saw, including but not limited to “pre-swerving” at cars to open up a space for a merge in from the right, would get you banned from weekend racing events held by the SCCA or NASA. I saw passing on the shoulder. I saw pickup trucks just flat forcing smaller cars off the roads. When we all came to a stop for whatever accident was being rubbernecked ahead, the medians came alive with jacked-up 4x4s using this opportunity to go in the grass and grab 50 or 100 places “in line” by swerving back onto the pavement when they approached the scene of the crash.
The total drive time for 240 miles: just over five hours. It was a complete nightmare. And utterly unnecessary. The domino effect was plain to see: One crash causes a slowdown which causes more aggressive behavior which causes another crash and so on. I have no idea how many crashes happened behind me. Figure there was probably a quarter-million dollars’ worth of damage done on that Saturday morning. For no reason other than the supreme selfish idiocy of the modern driver, our fundamental 2017-era narcissism where we have all decided that everybody outside the rolled-up windows of our 6500-lb steel box can go to hell for all we care. Just so we can sneak up a couple of spots in traffic on our way to waste those few seconds or minutes aimlessly milling around a Pilot or Love’s truck stop looking at T-shirts that say “The only thing tougher than a trucker is a trucker’s wife.”
By the time I got north of Charlotte I was ready to give it all up. I was in that dangerous frame of mind that causes people to vote for overseas wars and restrictions on the Bill of Rights. I would have turned over the keys to my truck in a heartbeat. Given all control to an eyeless mystery box somewhere in the CANBUS. Then I would have sat back and watched a movie while the computers marched us all in lockstep up the freeway. Doing exactly the speed limit. Leaving the right amount of space. Not deviating from the government-approved path. Truthfully, even if the computer couldn’t go more than 50mph, it still would have saved me time. Because the computers wouldn’t race each other. They wouldn’t suffer blows to their fragile egos. They wouldn’t bully their fellow drivers. They would just treat it like another day at the electronic office.
From now on, whenever I talk to somebody who is enthusiastic about autonomous vehicles, I’ll make a serious effort to understand why they want to give up control to a computer. I bet that most of them will tell a story like my seven-crash Saturday. Which leads me to an unpleasant but unavoidable point: If we can’t clean up our mess, as truckers and SUV drivers and regular motorists, then our mess will be cleaned up for us. By the government. By the insurance companies. By the automakers. By Google and its many challengers. And although I’m no psychic and I don’t have a crystal ball, I’m going to tell you how this ends: We can’t clean up our own mess on the American road. And we won’t.