It’s Not Just Human Drivers.. Machines Have Blind Spots, Too: If you’re not up on Infiniti’s nomenclature, the QX60 is a luxury crossover, and like the Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz models it competes with, the Infiniti bristles with electronic driver aids—radar-based automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, ultrasonic parking sensors, and an array of cameras that stitch together an overhead view of the car when you’re in reverse. On the road, it’s like the QX60 is surrounded by invisible marshmallows. As long as the radars see the other car, pedestrian, or wall, you’ll only hit marshmallow.
But any system has vulnerabilities, and Infiniti’s software didn’t account for the right-hand turn out of the Aberdeen Habitat for Humanity loading dock. Neither did my 25 years of driving experience, which, I should point out, were heretofore damage-free. From the driver’s seat, my path from dock to dumpster looks all clear. From the Infiniti’s perspective—which I imagine as the point of view of the Predator—there’s nothing to trigger automatic braking. So I hit the gas, turn the wheel, and promptly crash over the top of the low cinder-block wall that borders the right side of the loading dock.
I jump out and survey my handiwork. The wall is just low enough that I couldn’t see it from the car, but sufficiently tall to hang the Infiniti on its rocker panel once the front tire climbed up and over. “Well, gosh darn it,” I say, or words to that effect, as I realize that the tire is going flat and that I have to execute this boneheaded move in reverse to get the car off the wall. With a symphony of terrible noises issuing from the undercarriage, the QX60 claws back down to the pavement, dented but drivable, pending the tire change. It starts to rain.
The guy at the loading dock watches impassively as I retrieve the spare from under the car. The wall has a few blocks dislodged, but is otherwise intact. On the left side of the lane, across from the cinder blocks, there’s no wall, just an eye-level span of brightly painted PVC pipe to designate the edge of the lane. “Know what happened to the wall on other side?” he asks. “Same thing.” Cool. Thanks for the heads-up.
While I change the tire, I begrudgingly conclude that some of this was my fault. Like, at least 5 percent. The rest goes to the car, which clearly should’ve stopped me. And Habitat for Humanity, for building habitat where humanity couldn’t see it. And who puts the scrap metal over there, anyway? If I weren’t such a benevolent sink philanthropist, none of this would’ve happened. At least this incident occurred here and not in the parking lot of Tootsie’s Cabaret.
The fact that this happened at all points toward the challenges faced by self-driving cars. Our roads will inevitably produce combinations of circumstances that lead to mayhem. When your car gets hit with a solar flare just as the construction zone ahead detours around that new piranha sanctuary that’s not on any of the maps yet, how does it know the right maneuver? I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles without encountering a situation like the one at the loading dock. And if that wall were a little bit higher, the Infiniti’s phalanx of sensors would’ve hit the brakes. But the system’s blind spot overlapped with my own. Next stop, property damage.
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