Autonomous car features have some buyers reaching for steering wheel

By Siri Bulusu

Technology comes first at the Chicago Auto Show this week with car makers showing off autonomous safety features, ranging from self-braking systems to radar cruise-control.

Semi-autonomous safety features, such as anti-lock breaks and airbags, are standard staples in cars, indicating increased dependence on built-in safety features, but 2016 marks the official advent of completely autonomous cars.

In a letter issued to Google Tuesday, the United States vehicle safety regulators deemed Google’s self-driving algorithm a “driver” — making the computer the only required “license carrier” in the car — and acknowledged autonomous vehicles as the next step in the “trend toward computer-driven vehicles.”

While the new interpretation of “driver” is a landmark, some car buyers say they’ve seen total car autonomy coming for a while, and they’re not sure what to think.

“There are so many automatic features in cars already, if you put them all together it would be a totally self-driving car,” said Linda Trotter, who came to the show with her daughter specifically to check out the latest technology.

She said while she is keen on having semi-automated features in her car, she is not prepared to relinquish full control and needs to be able to turn those features off.

A spokesperson for Rand Truck Media, which promotes Jeep, said that a lot of time and resources have been invested in developing safety technology that will protect drivers, but that emotional hurdles prevent older car buyers from adopting that technology.

The spokesperson said while older generations struggle to adopt new technology, younger generations take it for granted.

“I saw a child hit a remote control button on his mom’s keychain to open the door of a minivan,” the spokesperson said. “He never put a key in the door, he never knew a key even comes with a car. That’s just something his generation never grew up with.”

The automated safety features on display at the Chicago Auto Show constitute higher stakes than remote-controlled doors. Jeep demonstrated several SUV models able to autonomously maneuver down a 35-degree decline while the driver takes her feet off the brake pedal.

“I thought we were going to tumble down,” said Lisa Filippelli, who took a ride around the Jeep Playground. “I was really scared, but the feature is phenomenal.”


Photo Above: Jeep demonstrate’s its ability not to crash into the floor, using an autonomous braking system. (Siri Bulusu/MEDILL)

“Honestly, I trust my 16-year-old on the road and I’d trust his instincts before a machine,” Filippelli said.

Impressed by the Jeep demo, however, Filipelli said she might be able to give up full control in her car once she “got used to the idea” because the trend will only continue to grow.

Kevin Ewald, a driver for Ford, agreed that autonomous features are inevitable yet difficult to adopt.

“The problem is getting people to use it,” Ewald said. “Once you build confidence, people love it. But you can’t expect people to get excited when you say a car is driving itself.”

A product specialist at Volkswagen said that self-driving cars change the entire ownership proposition for cars.

Owners of the new Volkswagen Golf models will be able to change the autonomous settings, so they still have some control over what the car does, even if the functions engage automatically.

“The question of liability changes when you put total control in a machine, rather than a person,” the Volkswagen specialist said.

Linda Trotter and her daughter Lichaun said safety is the main purpose of autonomous features in cars and there is a delicate balance that must be struck between machine and driver.

“When things start to go wrong, you want the car to take over,” Lichaun said. “But when the car is doing it wrong, you want the driver to be able to take over.”

Chicago Auto Show
When: Saturday through Feb. 21.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13, through Feb. 20; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21.

Where: McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.

Tickets: adults, $12; seniors 62 and older, $7; children ages 7 through 12, $7; children 6 years old and younger are free.

Photo at Top: Nearly 10,000 attendees will visit the Chicago Auto Show, open to the public Feb. 13 through Feb.21. (Siri Bulusu/MEDILL)