Lexus showed off its self-driving LS at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show(Photo: Lexus)

Lexus showed off its self-driving LS at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show

David Booth

David Booth — The Fast Lane


I don't know when I became so skeptical about technology. I'm not even completely sure I'm suffering standard creeping maturity, the typical aging human's rejection of anything outside their comfort zone. Indeed, thanks to a memory fogged by too many knocks to the head and some accompanying mojitos, I'm not even sure that I actually am more cynical than I was in my youth. All that I know is that my initial reaction to most technological hype is a jaundiced eye and a knowing nod. My only defense is that of every aged cynic — experience.

Of course, one hopes (since I do write this column) that said experience has some worth and right now it's telling me right now to be just a little cautious of some automatic driving aids launched at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Both Audi and Lexus launched semi-autonomous cars there and though both cautioned that neither of their prototypes are totally "self driving" — Toyota especially adamant that, "we believe the technology should make the driver better and that it should not be a driverless car," — there can be no mistake that cars that can drive themselves are the direction of the future.

Related link: A history of the self-driving car

Google's self-piloting Prius(Photo: Creative Commons)

Google's self-piloting Prius

Google has been testing a self-driving Prius for years and the U.S. Defense Department has sponsored autonomous-vehicle research for more than a decade. And, indeed, Audi has now been granted a license by the state of Nevada to operate an autonomous car, the first automaker to receive such dispensation (Google has such a license as well).

I have to admit it's hard to be skeptical when an Audi A7 can drop you of at your favourite restaurant, park itself and then, as the coup de grace, pick you up at the front door once you've finished gastronimizing. And personally, it'd be tough to resist the boon to my productivity resulting from being able to bang out a road test on my computer while simultaneously being auto-piloted around in the car I am testing. Assuming the editors at the MSN never catch on, I could double my output instantaneously, the resultant boost to my paycheck meaning I might be able to afford two mojitos on Fridays.

Video: Riding along in Google's robocar

There is, ostensibly, also the promise of greater safety. Computers, being more reliable than flesh, bone and pre-caffeinated synapses, suffer none of the mental fogginess or slow reactions to inputs common to mere mortals. Modern sensors see all, CPUs process information faster than the blink of an eye and, and if auto-pilots are good enough for planes and trains, then they should be good enough for our automobiles.

One of the many sensor systems on the self-driving Lexus. But will it fare any better in Canada?(Photo: Lexus)

One of the many sensor systems on the self-driving Lexus. But will it fare any better in Canada?

But — and you had to know there was one of those coming — that's where all that aforementioned experience comes in. And in point of fact, I didn't need eons of it to raise my skepticism to new heights because the very week that Audi launched its self-parking automobile in the City of Sin, I was driving BMW's semi-automated AciveHybrid 7 in not nearly as sunny (nor sinful) northern Quebec.

The Active 7 is a lovely car, semi-frugal for a sedan of its girth and blessed with handling and performance that is the calling card of The Ultimate Driving Machine. It is also, thanks to the Teutonic love of advanced engineering, fairly festooned with the latest electronic gadgetry, two samples of which are an Active Cruise Control system — which uses a forward-looking radar system to maintain a safe distance to the car ahead — and a rear view system which, thanks to a wide-angle camera in the rear trunk lid, can display all behind you in perfect cinematographic glory on a the 7's dashboard-located 260-mm LCD screen.