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Baby, you can drive my car

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In New Mexico,we struggle with driving.

Transplants like to reminisce how much better the drivers were where they came from. Folks in neighboring states nod knowingly about those yellow/turquoise/chile license plates. Natives joke that using a turn signal is a sign of weakness.

And so, while a self-driving car for the masses is still years away, you would think New Mexicans would embrace the potential – be it for all the right or all the wrong reasons.

In the first category, the autonomous technology promises independence and mobility for those who can’t drive, as well as increased safety for those inside and outside the vehicle. No more DWIs, for starters. As to the second category, readers have reported seeing drivers eating soup during rush hour on the interstate; a self-driving vehicle frees hands for a full-course meal.

Self-driving gets thumbs down

But if you think New Mexicans are embracing the idea of technology taking the wheel, you’ve got another thing coming. A recent Google survey on ABQJournal.com shows that using or owning a self-driving vehicle is about as popular with our readers as roundabouts, HAWK signals and flashing turn arrows.

And it has been getting less popular as the technology has developed.

In 2016, when we asked more than 500 readers “what word would you use to describe self-driving cars and trucks,” the three most common were “stupid,” “dangerous” and “scary.” We asked if they would buy a self-driving car if it cost the same and the insurance were cheaper, and 63% said “no.”

We asked more than 1,000 “if you were about to get in a taxi or Uber and it did not have a human driver would you get in?” More than 60% said “no.” We followed up with “What if you had been drinking?” and even more, 68%, said “no.”

Feel free to insert your own punchline here.

In October this year, we asked the same questions. The word most used to describe autonomous vehicles by close to 500 readers is now simply “no.” Of the more than 500 readers surveyed, now 70% would not buy a self-driving car if it cost the same and had cheaper insurance. Of the more than 1,000 asked if they would get into a taxi or Uber without a human driver, now 67% say “no.”

And if they’ve been drinking? We’re up to 70% presumably still getting behind the wheel themselves rather than taking a self-driving ride.

NM more receptive than most

Yet even with the increased negative reactions, New Mexico is warmer to autonomous vehicles than much of the world. A September Ipsos poll of 20,000 new-car buyers in 10 countries found just 6% would buy a fully autonomous vehicle. Half of the respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in April thought autonomous cars were more dangerous than human-driven vehicles, while two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous car.

Todd Markusic, vice president of Ipsos Mobility, told MediaVillage after the September survey that “I do think once people experience the technology, they will be impressed with it and be more willing to accept it.”

You’ve got to see it to believe in it

And I have to agree.

Last month at the Intelligent Transportation Society of New Mexico’s annual meeting, I got the chance to ride in a vehicle outfitted by tech company FLIR with much of the technology that goes into advanced safety and autonomous vehicle systems – traditional cameras like the ones used to help drivers back up; radar that measures distance to objects ahead and runs adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation braking systems; LIDAR that measures the position of people and objects as well as their speed and route of movement 360-degrees around the vehicle; and multiple thermal cameras that can not only detect objects but classify them as human, animal or inanimate.

It was mind-blowing, and it provided a peek into the technology that is already embedded in some higher-end vehicles or will be added to future models and made available for after-market installation. It is technology that will ultimately put the safety into self-driving cars.

While FLIR’s thermal-enhanced autonomous test vehicle had multiple full-size computer screens for occupants to view, much of that technology would ultimately be invisible – built into the vehicle safety systems like parking-assist and adaptive cruise control systems already are.

My ride was in the middle of a sunny New Mexico day, but FLIR’s test videos show the value of the thermal cameras at night and in weather – they see four times farther than your headlights. The data pouring into the vehicle was overwhelming – there is no way even the best driver could have been able to identify every pedestrian, parked and moving vehicle and building as we drove around the bustling plaza in Old Town. The car saw and categorized everything.

Now imagine it’s foggy, rainy, snowy or dark. The vehicle will still “spot” and either stop or avoid all impediments.

It became clear we are headed to a time when all that camera technology, tied into other vehicle systems like speed and braking, can mean no more fender-benders or worse. No more pedestrian fatalities. No more roadkill.

So maybe you wouldn’t buy a self-driving car right now, even if it cost the same and the insurance were cheaper. Or get in an autonomous Uber. Even if you were drunk.

But some experience with the technology just might change your mind.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Editorial page editor D’Val Westphal tackles commuter issues for the Metro area on Mondays in the Road Warrior column. Comment directly to her at 823-3858 or dwestphal@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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