The Arrogance of Technology

I was headed from Chicago back to Detroit on I-94, piloting a new Mercedes-Benz CLK 430 Cabriolet through the night when the digital dashboard display went out.

I was headed from Chicago back to Detroit on I-94, piloting a new Mercedes-Benz CLK 430 Cabriolet through the night when the digital dashboard display went out. Complete darkness. No illumination for the gages. No trip computer. No clock. No gearshift indicator. No radio display. Nothing.

A warm moment of déjà vu swept over me and I thought about a trip I had made four years earlier. It was a night drive across the Arizona desert in my ’65 Skylark (notable because it was the best $300 car I have ever owned). That old rustbucket didn’t have any dash illumination either, so I used the open flame of a Zippo to watch the speedo climb toward its top speed...45...55...60.

But I digress.

Two thoughts hit me as I passed Battle Creek in the Benz:

1. “Good thing that all of this unworking… uh, technology is just gimmickry ‘engineered’ to justify a $58,000 price tag.”

2. “I wonder if any of the important electronic stuff—like the ESP system or the electronic throttle—is affected and I just don’t realize it...yet?”

For the purposes of being a “professional journalist,” I dismissed that first thought. Besides, the second one was far more troubling, as in, “I hope the rest of the electronics don’t crap out here in the rainy cold while I’m doing 78 mph in heavy traffic.” Thankfully, the story ends happily as I made it home safely and the problem was verified as only a minor one.

Except that I’m going to blow it all out of proportion. Why? Because DaimlerChrysler researchers in Germany are fervently working on two projects that could produce some of the biggest changes in automobiles since...well, forever.

The first is a prototype vehicle that is piloted by using “sidesticks,” joysticks mounted at the sides of the driver, in the door armrest and center console. Based on the Mercedes SLK roadster, this prototype uses a trunk-load of computer processors to operate a complete drive-by-wire system. This means that there’s no steering wheel or pedals, and consequently, absolutely no mechanical control of throttle, steering, or braking.

The next bit of electronic wizardry is “The Eighth Sense,” a system that goes one giant leap beyond the Distronic distance regulating cruise control currently found on the Mercedes S-class. While Distronic is designed to maintain cruising speed on the freeway, Eighth Sense operates in urban environments to provide “automatic driving in stop-and-go traffic.” It uses stereo color cameras mounted on the rearview mirror to feed 3D images to computer processors that perform three different types of analysis—size, contour and motion. This allows the computer to “see” signs, stoplights, traffic signals and pedestrians in less than 5 milliseconds. If the vehicle is headed for a collision, the system would sound an alarm.

Of course, the next logical progression of these ideas is that “it would be possible to transmit the results of the image processing directly to the brakes, steering or cruise control,” explains Dr. Uwe Franke, project manager of DCX’s Image Understanding. Not that I need to connect the dots here, but what he’s talking about is a car with “autopilot.”

Given that you can probably surmise my feelings about autopilot from the beginning of this column, I’ll spare you the HAL references and my general Neo-Luddite condemnation of new technology. But do consider the attitude of DCX’s Dr. Gerhard Hettich, director of Electronic Architecture and Microelectronic, as he explains the autopilot technology: “Electronic systems control the vehicle in such a way that drivers’ interests always have top priority—even in critical situations where he or she is no longer in control.”

This statement strikes me as ill founded, as its direct implication is that electronic systems can drive cars better than humans, especially in very dynamic situations. While electronic systems that assist driving (like ESP) are wonderful in that they make cars safer and easier to drive, taking the human out of the equation entirely carries a very high moral imperative.

Even if I concede that Hettich and Co. are capable of building a car that drives better than I do, it would have to be considerably more reliable than the Mercedes that inspired this column before I would be willing to be “no longer in control.” Is this degree of reliability possible in a volume production scenario? Perhaps, but not without, as Hettich describes, “the mastery of development and manufacturing processes.” Given my recent experience, DCX isn’t quite there.