Jack Ohman

When driverless cars meet Sacramento’s mean streets, look both ways

Google's new self-driving prototype car is introduced at the Google campus in Mountain View in 2015.
Google's new self-driving prototype car is introduced at the Google campus in Mountain View in 2015. AP file

Driving in Sacramento’s midtown is like watching an action-adventure movie, maybe “Fast and the Furious,” or perhaps more of a physics exercise, as if you’re taking a spin in the Large Hadron Supercollider.

Many drivers regard stop signs as a nanny-state sticky note. Stop lights are treated like a video game obstacle to be defeated. Cyclists ride the grid on tangents and race like free radicals to add to the excitement and suspense of downtown living.

Now the wonderful people in Silicon Valley are making sure that all that fresh meat on the hoof on the sidewalks of downtown Sac are faced with another midtown challenge: watching out for “autonomous vehicles.”

Like the nerds in the AV club, promoters of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, tell us that these rigs are perfectly safe. No technology is perfectly safe, of course, and we face all sorts of death from above, below and behind with each passing day.

Planes plummet, trains derail and old-fashioned cars without Miracle Silicon Valley Technology © crash all the time. As Rep. Doris Matsui (a recent car accident victim herself) pointed out, 94 percent of traffic accidents involve driver error.

Along with Matsui, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive are pushing Sacramento as a test track for AVs.

Steinberg is, I am sure, a safe driver. Ranadive is more expert in the art of the new autonomous technology, being the owner of an out-of-control, pleasantly careening NBA franchise.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has given its blessing to turn downtown into yet another guinea pig for this type of vehicle, after a little contretemps about the influence (What? Here? Sacramento?) of Google on the decision-making process.

Furthermore, Google’s AV subsidiary Waymo has fought tooth-and-nail to keep steering wheels off these sleds, but rest assured that engineers will be in “continuous communication” with them.

In the words of Mission Control to the doomed space shuttle in 2003, “Columbia, Houston. UHF comm check.” They were in continuous communication, too, until they weren’t.

You know, I hate to say it, but that pesky technology doesn’t work so well sometimes, and you could be enjoying a cold one at Magpie when you wind up with a tasty blue Prius on your plate next to your pork belly and polenta.

Of course, all the big playahs were at the table with the city folks, extolling the virtue of these vehicles, and they all agreed that this sort of thing was the future, and that anyone against them (without drivers) were Luddites.

Sorry. I think these cars, along with drones, ultimately will be job-killers. No more taxi drivers, no more truck drivers. We are letting Silicon Valley drive us all into a dystopian future, and yeah, I miss transistor radios and vinyl.

I want someone driving these cars, with steering wheels, and sitting at rigid attention when they’re zipping around my family, friends, or people just walking down the street at 16th and P.

It’s dangerous enough in midtown, and I assume to make the downtown driving experience for AVs more realistic, they’ll program them to run stop signs and lights.

That’s something the downtown boys and girls haven’t fixed yet, either. But it’ll be fine.

Just stay off the sidewalk. That Prius is heavy.

  Comments