Driverless chaos in Rappahannock?

Rose Lyn Jacob

I’m not against vehicular progress, some of my best friends drive Teslas. But self-driving cars? Oh come on! Might be good where roads are paved and streets and avenues line up on a grid. Out here, however, perilous winding roads, blind bends, chiseled rock faces, poorly defined river embankments, and wet surfaces make a trip to the market a death defying adventure. Those MIT engineers will need to take a lesson in avoiding road hazards if they intend to grab a share of the more rural market.

Stands of trees, fenced in cows, horses, pack mules, and, sheep tended by ever-diligent guard llamas create a bucolic scene, until the severed limb of an ancient oak materializes in front of you, forcing a split second decision.

Our roads are strewn with the carcasses of possums, raccoons, snakes, squirrels, spring peepers and all manner of fowl. And what about Bambi? Deer have notoriously poor visual acuity. My one-time run-in with potential venison was, thankfully, averted as I hit the brakes a split second after seeing terror in the eyes of the oncoming driver as the swift-footed buck sprinted across the field and vaulted over the roadside fence. Wham! . . . Antlers! A somewhat dazed buck bearing a distinct resemblance to Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, thumped, then rebounded; causing only minimal damage to the truck and maximum damage to my nervous system.

It’s a jungle out there, so to speak. Let’s start with the wild turkey, the kind you eat . . . not drink. When the turkey hen pops up from the gully to cross the road and go into the woods, her entire brood will pop up and chase after her. How are you going to feel when your mind processes what our car can’t anticipate?

And how about cows and bulls? Sometimes, Bossy ends up on the wrong side of the fence, or in the middle of the road. How the heck can a self-driving car predict what Bossy’s going to do next when even Bossy hasn’t made up her mind?

As for those nasty creatures, nature’s ultimate recyclers, turkey vultures, aka buzzards? The turkey vulture is unique in that it can find roadkill by smell as well as sight. The Piedmont driver knows to eye the sky ahead looking for four or five turkey vultures circling. Alerted and on the lookout, the driver instinctively peers down the road to see what is on the menu and prepares for a possible encounter. These powerful birds keep our roads beautiful by consuming carcasses of deer, raccoons, possums, foxes, the occasional squirrel and the unfortunate skunk; unfortunate for both skunk and driver. They are loath to leave their meal on the road and a serious game of chicken ensues with two possible outcomes. A) the driver slams on the brake just in time or; B) the turkey vulture starts to take flight, but doesn’t clear your windshield, yielding unfortunate results.

In summer brown bears with cubs in tow can be seen sauntering down the road. Less predictable are the erratic movements of bicyclists, hikers, fisherman, hunters and lost beagles, all blending in so well with their surroundings as to be indistinguishable.

Will the next generation of driverless cars react in time when confronted by a kaleidoscope of newly hatched butterflies, or peepers hopping on wet, moonless nights? Will that self-driving BMW brake for turtles and tortoises?

Will the cyber vans and sedans maneuver through downed branches, high water, rockslides, and icy winding roads in a split second or read the mind of a squirrel making a life or death decision. I think not. And as for determining why the chicken crossed the road, right in front of your car, well, those of us who live here know the answer to that one. They cross the road to make you late for work.

So tell those Silicon Valley engineers to go back to the drawing table; or whatever it is they use to design cars these days. And caution them not to leave the safety of their city streets and come to visit with their self-driving cars just yet!

— The writer lives in Syria, Va

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