Home Commentary The Way I See It: Are Self-Driving Cars in Vermont’s Future?

The Way I See It: Are Self-Driving Cars in Vermont’s Future?

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Anyone who regularly drives Elm Street through the Meadows knows the speed limit is 25 miles per hour. On a recent drive through that mostly residential neighborhood, noticing a speed limit sign, I instinctively looked to the dashboard. I was going 27. Oops!

Actually, maybe that wasn’t so bad: The icon on my dashboard said the limit was 70. What? When it comes to telling me the speed limit, my car’s front camera is only about 90% accurate; however, I usually know what causes errors.

The camera does a poor job in construction zones or places where signs are hard to see or unusually placed. Coming down Paine Turnpike from Berlin, when I go by Hilltop Townhouses at the posted speed of 35, my car sometimes reads the 25-mile-per-hour sign on the side street and then gives me incorrect info. But 70 mph in a 25 zone on Elm Street? I had never had such an absurd reading, and don’t know what happened that day.

This got me thinking. Reading speed limit signs is one of several features my car has that self-driving cars need. If I were in a self-driving car, would it have then sped down narrow, winding Elm Street at interstate speeds?

Before I go too far in poking fun at some of my car’s options, I want to emphasize that the manufacturer acknowledges their limitations and is very clear that the options are meant to assist the driver and never to drive the car. Plus, as in a “self-driving” car, the human driver is expected to override any errors the car makes.

My vehicle is a 2019 hybrid, all-wheel-drive SUV that gets good mileage, performs well in snow, and has lots of excellent safety features; I’m very happy with it. I didn’t buy it for the options I’m poking fun at, but surely, self-driving cars have more advanced systems than these.

Many Vermonters now have cars with driver-assist options that provide a taste of being in a self-driving vehicle. Maybe some of them have reached the same conclusion I have: Vermont is a long way from widely accommodating self-driving vehicles.

Equipped with a front camera in the windshield and radar in the grille, another of my car’s options is an automated lane assist. Once I set it, it steers — though I still hold and control the wheel. On interstates, it does remarkably well, as it does on most secondary highways. But beyond that, most of the time it’s useless.

The feature requires visible yellow or white lines to mark the lane, so it doesn’t work on most side streets or on any gravel roads. Nor does it work on wet, salt-stained, or snow-covered roads. That’s an understatement: On snow-covered roads it is a hazard because sometimes it doesn’t know enough to turn itself off.

Before you call the Montpelier PD on me, I want to emphasize that I never let go of the steering wheel or actually let the car do any independent driving. In fact, the steering wheel and I sometimes have disagreements, since the lane assist apparently would be happy to drive over that dead skunk or into that too-large pothole.

It’s easy to override the system simply by steering the way I want to go. That doesn’t mean it won’t chide me with a dashboard beep-beep-beep if I go slightly out of the lane when I avoid that skunk or if I change lanes or exit without signaling. I assume self-driving vehicles have features to avoid skunks and potholes.

Although my car has GPS and lots of other great modern features, it’s reassuring that it still needs me. This isn’t just because my street has no center or side lines to mark lanes: Like most people in Montpelier, I have to drive uphill to get home — sometimes in snow.

My car may be a tech genius in some ways, but it doesn’t know how to drive up a snowy Vermont road. It has an automatic anti-skid device that slows the car if it’s losing traction. This is not new technology: Many vehicles have it, I’ve had it before and in some circumstances it’s helpful.

But if I drive up a snow-covered road and a tire spins a bit, the anti-skid feature slows the car down. When a tire spins again, the car slows even more. Pretty soon, I would be stopped in the middle of the road and have no traction at all.

Fortunately, I can push a button to override this feature and drive the way one needs to on a snowy uphill in Vermont: by keeping a safe, steady speed and steering carefully. Presto! I’m up the hill and in my driveway, glad that I didn’t have to leave it up to my car to get me home on its own.

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