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Six reasons to love, or loathe, autonomous cars

Audi TT-S Autonomous car

The technical reality of autonomous cars is coming sooner than you think, but societal acceptance of autonomous cars may be some way off. Technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist make the tip of this iceberg among production cars, while Google has already done extensive testing of an autonomous car system. Automakers are beginning their own self-driving car programs, and the Department of Transportation is running tests of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, an important safety technology that will also play a key role for autonomous cars.

But not everyone likes the idea of self-driving
cars. CNET editors Wayne Cunningham and Antuan Goodwin took opposite sides on the issue, arguing for and against. Add your own opinion of autonomous cars in our comments section.

Wayne Cunningham
Josh Miller/CNET)

Love for autonomous cars
I love driving, but I also love the idea of cars that can drive themselves. My colleague Antuan Goodwin feels the same way about driving, but is not so keen on self-driving cars. Let me offer a few reasons that might sway your own opinion about why I want autonomous cars on the road.

Zero accidents
Using 360-degree sensors that do not get distracted plus vehicle-to-vehicle communication for over-the-horizon perception, autonomous cars will not crash. Automotive sensors can create a much better perception of the world than our frequently interrupted 200-degree field of vision. With these sensors in place, making cars that do not crash comes down to programming.

Making crashes a thing of the past not only protects us from death and injury, but also eliminates property damage, reduces traffic problems, and should bring down car insurance rates. Antuan thinks that autonomous cars would be subject to major technical failure, but cars are not like cell phones or computers. Testing is much more rigorous for automotive components. Automakers comply with published standards intended to make crucial automotive systems as bulletproof as possible.

No moving violations
While the highway patrol talks a good game about issuing speeding tickets to protect public safety, we all know that they conduct enforcement stops with no obvious pattern. You could merely be keeping up with traffic on the freeway when an officer picks you out of the pack, possibly based on your car’s color. Some officers get sneaky and hang out at the bottom of a hill, picking off cars that naturally pick up a little speed, or look for drivers engaged in perfectly safe passing maneuvers on the highways.

The antidote to having points on your record, and subsequently higher insurance rates, is the autonomous car. Antuan argues that autonomous cars will make driving boring, but the majority of driving, commuting, and errand-running, is already boring. Let the car drive itself at these times, when its programming will not violate traffic laws. You may get the occasional ticket when taking the wheel for some weekend driving on fun roads, but not for absent-mindedly speeding down the highway.

With self-driving cars obeying traffic laws and avoiding accidents, the days of seeing flashing lights in your rearview mirror may be behind you.


Transportation for the elderly
As we age, our perception and reaction times degrade. It’s the sad truth of being part of nature. People who enjoyed the freedom of vehicular transportation their entire lives find themselves facing reduced mobility, reliant on helpful relatives and children or community transportation services for senior citizens. What used to be a quick jaunt to the grocery store now becomes an odyssey of begging others for a ride.

With autonomous cars, senior citizens can retain all the freedom they had when younger. Get in the car, tell it where you need to go, and it takes off, conducting its aged passenger in perfect safety. No more will families have to go out of their way to pick up Grandma for a dinner out; she can meet everyone at the restaurant, arriving with the full confidence that independence brings.

Car valet parks itself
One of the worst types of driving is cruising for a parking spot. You should be focusing on the road ahead, but you have to be constantly scanning to the sides for open spaces. After finding a spot, you then have to hike to your actual destination. Parking lot traffic snarls during the holidays end up in fights. Glad tidings to all, indeed.

The parking problem literally goes away when your car can drop you off at your destination, drive off to find parking on its own, then come back to pick you up whenever you are ready. Parking is actually one of the problems that automakers want to address with autonomous cars, and they have envisaged exactly this scenario. Technology can give us all chauffeur-driven cars.

Productive commute time
Slogging through traffic in the morning and evening, going to and from work an hour or so either way, the necessity of eyes on the road means 2 hours a day out of your life. That’s 10 hours per week wasted in traffic, 500 hours a year with time off for vacation, time that could have been used much more fruitfully.

How about your car does the driving, and you spend your time going through the morning e-mail, making calls, and generally setting up the work day. By the time you get to the office, you’re on a roll, getting stuff done. Eventually, your commute becomes part of the workday, so you can jump in your car at the time you used to have to be at your desk. What are you going to do with 500 hours of extra free time each year?

Always have a designated driver
Anti-drunk-driving campaigns highlight the self-worth and sense of responsibility gained by being a designated driver, but they don’t tell you that hanging out with a bunch of drunken people is extremely tedious, if you happen to be sober. And how many times have you had to refuse drinks just as the party looks like it’s becoming fun, because you have to drive home at the end of the evening?

An autonomous car should certainly be able to double as your designated driver. Current thinking among automakers is that you, as the driver, would still be responsible for the car’s behavior, so could still get a DUI even if the car is driving perfectly. But once trust is built by reliable and safe autonomous cars, it would then make sense, and result in safer roads, if we let cars bring their owners home from bars and parties.

Antuan Goodwin, Associate Editor
Josh Miller/CNET)

Reasons to resist our robo-car overlords

We’re slowly creeping toward robo-cars now — adaptive cruise control here, automatic parking there — and drivers will be wary of the first generation of truly autonomous, self-driving cars. They should be; this technology is potentially dangerous in both literal and figurative ways that I’ll point out below. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of tin-foil-hat-wearing Luddite. However, I do feel that someone needs to play the devil’s advocate and point out potential issues before the autonomous car is upon us.

When things go wrong, they could go very wrong
Eventually, drivers will get used to the idea and give over more and more control to the machine and its software. But what happens when you car misjudges the distance to the wall at the back of your garage and ends up in your living room? Or when something goes wrong at highway speeds and you’re stuck along for the ride?

“HAL, pull over and let me out!”

“I can’t do that, Dave.”

When the cars can drive themselves, drivers will probably pay less attention to the daily operation of the vehicle, not noticing small glitches until they’re big issues. Outside of glitches, more opportunities for malicious third parties as electronic controls spread throughout the vehicle. One day, a carjacking could be as easy as car-hacking.

Self-driving cars will still have to deal with humans in nonautonomous cars
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there are more than 250 million registered passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S. I’d be willing to guess that a substantial majority of those cars were built pre-turn-of-the-century and that most of them will still be on the road when autonomous car hit the road in about 10 to 15 years. That means that autonomous cars will have to contend with these cars and their drivers.

Dealing with people requires natural intuitive and improvisational skills that most of us take for granted. Should I be watching the brake lights two cars ahead of me because the guy directly ahead has a phone glued to his face? Is that minivan mom yelling at her kids or watching the road? Is that bro in the Ultimate Driving Machine going to cut me off? (Of course he is.)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust most humans to drive on the road with other human drivers, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit hesitant to turn computers loose on the road with them.

Autonomy may actually increase congestion
Wayne points out that autonomous cars could one day self-valet, but sending an empty car to look for a parking spot while you grab an earlier place in line for brunch is just the beginning of a slippery slope. What happens if the car can’t find a parking spot? Does it just circle the block endlessly until you’re done eating? Does it go all the way home?

I’m sure that a connected robo-car could send you its GPS location, so that you could find it later, but we’re already at the bottom of the “I’m too lazy to walk to/from a parking spot” slope at this point, so these drivers will probably also be remotely calling for their robo-cars to come pick them up at the door.

Also, now more people who would have otherwise walked relatively short distances or taken public transportation will elect to just drive. Add these new drivers to the armies of empty “self-valeting” cars looking for places to wait until their owners call them, and before you know it, the roads are thick with metal.

Google autonomous car

Right now, there are few autonomous cars on the road and few issues. But as their numbers grow, so do the potential problems surrounding them.


Privacy potentially goes out of the window
These self-driving cars will presumably need to communicate with the grid, the cloud, or at least other vehicles in order to operate in the world at large. They’ll also likely keep an activity log for service and debugging. That’s not so bad, right? Wrong.

What this means is that someone — whether it’s your insurance company, the automaker, or your local dealer, or even local law enforcement — will have yet another means to track your every coming and going. Now I don’t think that I have anything to hide from any of these entities, but it gives me the creeps.

And what happens when that data ends up in the hands of the wrong people?

Who’s at fault when something goes wrong?
Wayne hopes that the self-driving car will signal an end to moving violations and accidents. While I agree that we’ll see a reduction, I don’t think that we’ll ever see a true end. Technology is fallible, just like the people who created it. I expect that we’ll see a few spectacular debacles in the first few years of autonomous cars while unforeseen kinks are worked out.

But when things inevitably go wrong — when your car hits something or simply exceeds the speed limit because of a glitch in the mapping software — who is at fault? Is it you, the owner of the robo-car? The automaker that built the car? The tier-one software provider that the automaker contracted to develop the visual recognition software that reads the street signs? This can’t possibly end well for anyone involved.

Does driving really need to get more boring?
We often get so fixated on the getting from point A to B with as little effort as possible, that we forget about all of the awesome stuff that gets passed along the way.

So many in my generation grew up not knowing about goofy roadside attractions or meeting weird people in cool small towns, because we were born well after the Interstate Highway System allowed our parents to simply skip everything between where they were and where they wanted to be. (Fortunately, my parents made sure that my brother and I learned about places like Ruby Falls in Tennessee, South of the Border on the boundary between the Carolinas, and dozens of other places off the beaten path.)

Where am I going with this? I imagine that autonomous cars will eventually have this same effect on neighborhoods. With our cars choosing the most efficient routes through town and while our eyes are glued to our smartphones and
tablets, everything between where we are and where we’re going gets missed. No more randomly wandering past cool shops because of a missed turn. No more discovering wonderful, hidden restaurants, because you spotted a place on the way to the nearby chain.

Goodbye, sense of exploration; you’ll be missed.

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Two Spocks go where many men have gone before: the golf club

Oh, those poor golf clubs.

Audi/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET)

It’s hard being an old Vulcan.

Younger beings come along and just want to vulcanize you.

Old Vulcans have it so bad they drive Mercedes. Young ones, quite naturally, drive an Audi.

These aren’t the musings of an addled mind; it’s the premise of a new Audi ad. Here we have old Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and young Spock, Zachary Quinto, challenging each other. Yes, they will race each other to the golf club — loser buys lunch. (Do not attempt.)

Quinto has a very fancy Audi S7. Spock is slumming it in an old guy’s Mercedes. Of course the Audi’s faster. This is an Audi ad.

Spock has to content himself with bathing in frustration and musing about hobbits, while his awfully slow Mercedes languishes. He’s had terrible problems getting his golf clubs in at all.

And yet this is not a complete besmirching of the original wise man of space. He delivers an accidental comeuppance — or, rather, go-downnance — to an unsuspecting Quinto.

After lunch, though, as a self-driving
car rolls up to the club, they both realize that neither of their cars is really out of this world.

Is it a Prius? Thankfully not.

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New Accord Coupe is an oasis of awesome in a desert of dull

Is it too early to say that Honda’s got its groove back? Maybe, but that doesn’t discount how much the 2013 Accord Coupe V-6 feels like a return to form for the Honda brand. It’s attractive. It’s design is thoughtful. Most importantly, it’s actually fun to drive.

Cabin tech
We’ve seen Honda’s new dashboard interface before in the Accord sedan and in the new Acura RLX (albeit, highly modified and reskinned for the premium brand).

In our navigation-equipped Accord Coupe, the infotainment system actually consists of two color LCDs and two different control schemes that work together. The main screen is standard to all Accord models and is an 8-inch display that sits at the top of the dashboard outside of the driver’s reach. It’s not touch sensitive and is controlled by a large control knob located low on the center stack, which is an odd placement. It’s not as easily reachable as the center console placement that the German manufacturers have favored recently, not as visible as the high placement favored by Nissan/Infiniti, and requires a bit of reaching around the shift knob depending on the chosen gear.

The main screen is where the the majority of the driver’s interactions occur, its interface split into four modes (navigation, phone, audio, and info) each accessible via a hardware button located near the control knob. Honda’s interface is greatly improved in this generation; every function is easy to find and, with a few exceptions that I’ll nitpick in a bit, I like what I see.

The second, smaller display sits lower in the dash and juts out from the dashboard a bit, making its touch screen easy for the driver to reach. However, the purpose of this second touch-sensitive display left me feeling a bit confused for the first few days with the Accord. Mostly, it just displays metadata for the currently playing audio source and offers additional controls. I was convinced that most of the functions accessible on this second screen could have been more elegantly solved with more clever integration into the main display.

Honda Accord Coupe interior

Our Accord featured two displays that sometimes worked together and sometimes seemed redundant.

Josh Miller/CNET)

But on the second day of my testing, I went to input a destination into the main screen’s navigation system and the audio controls on the touch screen were replaced with an input keyboard. Honda also gives drivers the option of using the control knob to select alphanumerics on the main screen, but with the keyboard right there, inputting destinations was quick and easy. While taking advantage of, for example, the Pandora app integration, the second screen allows for quick browsing of stations and rating songs without leaving the navigation interface on the main screen. The HondaLink Aha Radio integration works similarly. In these instances, what at first seemed like an overcomplication of what should have just been skip and pause buttons becomes a configurable interface that puts a lot of flexibility at the driver’s fingertips.

However, even for a old car-tech hand such as myself, dealing with two screens while driving takes a lot of getting used to, and there are a few oddities that never go away. For example, it’s possible to display and browse audio source information on both screens at the same time — possibly a holdover from models that don’t feature the second screen.

HondaLink in-dash

HondaLink and Aha put hundreds of Internet radio stations at the driver’s fingertips.

Josh Miller/CNET)

Speaking of audio sources, our Honda was equipped with an AM/FM tuner. a single-slot CD player, Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, and a USB/iPod connection — the usual suspects for what we expect to see at this point in a modern car. Our navigation-equipped model also featured hard-drive-based turn-by-turn directions with voice command and 16GB of storage space dedicated to storing ripped music and audio. The aforementioned Pandora app control with metadata, rating, and browsing and HondaLink app integration (which is basically just a customized connection to Aha by Harman’s audio and data streaming service) round out the audio source mix.

Driver aid technologies
The Accord is available with what is largely a modern outfit of driver aid technologies, including a standard rear-view camera with multiple views (wide, standard, and close).

Our model featured a camera-based lane departure warning system that alerts the driver when crossing guide lanes without signaling and a collision warning system that beeps and flashes amber LEDs at the base of the windshield when you get too close to the car ahead too quickly. I found the collision warning system to be too alarmist, beeping far too frequently, but it is both customizable and defeatable. On at least one occasion during my testing, I was glad to have the system in place.

Honda LaneWatch

The Accord lacked conventional blind-spot monitoring, but did boast a camera-based LaneWatch system.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Missing from Honda’s driver safety mix is a conventional blind-spot monitoring system with little LCDs in the side mirrors. In its place, Honda offers its LaneWatch system, a side-view camera that aims into the blind spot on the passenger side of the car, displaying its image on the main LCD in the dashboard. When the right turn signal is activated, the camera springs to life.

At first, I found it a bit odd and distracting, drawing my eye when I went to look over my shoulder (as I always do when changing lanes). The Accord actually has pretty good visibility even without the camera. Over time, however, I learned to use the camera in addition to the shoulder check — glancing at it as I turned my head and again as I returned to center, allowing me to triple check the blind spot before changing lanes.

Guidelines on the LaneWatch’s display also helped with judging whether cars visible were one, two, or three lengths behind, which prevented me from cutting off other drivers while I got used to the Accord’s length. A button on one of the steering column stalks allows the LaneWatch to be manually activated, which also aided in judging the size of spaces for parallel parking or double-checking the distance to the curb when you’re done. However, shifting into reverse brings up the rear view camera, a more useful view anyway.

There is no LaneWatch display for the driver’s side of the car, so you’ll have to stick to looking over your shoulder for lane changes in that direction.

Power train
While not immensely powerful, the Accord Coupe’s V-6 engine is a gem. Output for the 3.5-liter engine is stated at 278 horsepower and 252 pound feet of torque in this ‘6MT’ incarnation, which sends its power to the front wheels via a standard six-speed manual transmission.

The six-cylinder engine uses a technology called Variable Cylinder Management, which allows it to shut down one of its two banks and operate on just three cylinders when cruising and idling for increased efficiency, then reactivate the dormant bank when acceleration is required. The system is completely transparent in operation and I never noticed a lack of power when I called upon the engine. Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA at 21 city, 32 highway, and a combined 25 mpg. I averaged about 23.9 mpg over a long weekend that consisted of roughly equal parts highway cruising, city traffic, and a few early morning back-road blasts to test the Coupe’s handling prowess.

3.5-liter V-6

The Accord’s 3.5L V-6 engine is sometime a 1.75L inline-3, thanks to its VCM technology.

Josh Miller/CNET)

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Study: Most parents drive distracted with child in car


Many parents apparently still aren’t getting the message about the dangers of distracted driving.

Among 618 parents surveyed for a study out today from the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 90 percent of them admitted to chatting on the phone, texting, fiddling with the GPS, or doing other things while driving with their children in the

The parents who participated in the poll were asked specifically how often they engaged in distracting activities while driving with their child over the last month. Those activities included talking or texting on a cell phone, surfing the Internet, finding directions on a GPS or map, and changing a CD or DVD, as well as eating or grooming, and taking care of their child.

Most of the parents said they engaged in four out of the ten activities. Chatting on the phone was the most common distraction, while texting was the least common. Parents who admitted to distracted driving were also more likely to have reported being in a car accident.

“Lots of attention has been given to distracted teen drivers,” Michelle Macy, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “However, our results indicate parents are frequently distracted while driving their 1- to 12-year-old children, and these distracted drivers were more likely to have been in a crash.”

American Academy of Pediatrics)

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Smartphone mounts for your car

Panavise PortaGrip
Josh Miller/CNET)

Many drivers rely on smartphones for navigation, music, and calls in the car, but holding the phone while performing any of these tasks impairs driving ability and is illegal in some states. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that manually operating a phone greatly increases distraction while driving, where engaging in a hands-free call showed no increased crash risk.

To more safely use your phone in the
car, get a mount that will keep its voice command button in easy reach and its screen viewable at a glance.

Mounts can stick to windshields and dashboards, clip to vents, or fit into cup-holders. A good mount will offer multiple points of articulation so the phone can be optimally positioned.

For convenience, the clamp end should make it easy to attach and remove your phone, yet hold it securely. A phone becomes its most distracting when it drops off a mount and falls onto the floor, sliding under the seat or brake pedal.

We have tested a variety of mounts that use varying means to hold onto phone and car. Check out our roundup below.

Go hands-free with these smartphone mounts (pictures)

Click through for the full photo gallery and more details.

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When your airbag is your enemy (CNET On Cars, Episode 17)


iTunes (HD)iTunes (SD)iTunes (HQ)


Way back in May 2005, I did what I believe was our first
car tech video: a look at the 2005 Acura RL. It was like this thing from Mars had dropped on the CNET building. Today, the RL is gone, the RLX takes its place, and its first job is to put Acura back on the map in terms of a high-tech flagship sedan that sells in greater numbers than you can count on two hands. We’ll show you if the technology in the car is going to help.

Airbags aren’t a lot of fun as car tech goes, but they can be a lot of hurt if they’re fake and, yes, there are fake airbags our there. Enough that the feds recently put out an alert to look out for them, which is easier said than done. We try to rectify that imbalance in this episode, and once you see what a bad counterfeit airbag does, you’ll be motivated.

People ask me, “What’s next in car tech?” I have to struggle to keep my response short. There’s a lot. My Top 5 this week runs down the five technologies in the car that I think are right on the cusp of becoming the next big thing in motoring. Jot ’em down in your calendar, and check me in a couple years. I bet you’ll owe me a drink on that bet!

As always, you can send me an e-mail.

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