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For Self-Driving Car Tech, Companies Won't Go Zero To 100 Too Fast


If self-driving cars kind of freak you out but you like the idea, there's now an alternative. They're called semi-autonomous cars, and you're still the driver, but so much is automated that it may not feel that way.

NPR's Sonari Glinton went for a test drive with Kelley Blue Book's Micah Muzio. They took an average SUV, a Honda Pilot, for a semi-autonomous spin at the big car show in Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: What's really funny is that Honda is really, like, nervous about it being called anything close to autonomy. They call it Honda Sensing. What is this package of stuff supposed to do?

MICAH MUZIO: So that thing where I'm paying attention to something that's not the road ahead and then the car starts to drift out of its lane - hopefully, Honda Sensing will pull the car back into its lane. Or if I'm just not paying attention and a car pulls out in front of me, hopefully Honda Sensing will stop the vehicle before we impact.

GLINTON: So let's, like, drive around beautiful downtown Detroit.

MUZIO: OK. Yeah, let's check it out.

So how real do you want to get with this? Like, should I try to hit something?

GLINTON: (Laughter) You know what? Luckily, Honda didn't send anybody with us.

MUZIO: OK, OK. We'll just see what happens. Detroit will provide, I'm sure.

So I'm going to do something I don't normally do, which is I'm going to briefly take my hands off the wheel. Honda doesn't recommend this, but I'm a journalist, so I do as I please. And notice we're staying within the lane.

Now here's the fun part. If I do this long enough (unintelligible) drifting a little bit. It's correcting. Notice how it corrected.


MUZIO: Wait for it. Keep your eyes here. You see that?


MUZIO: The car is basically steering itself around a corner right now.

GLINTON: It's very subtle. The steering wheel is sort of moving itself...

MUZIO: Yeah.

GLINTON: ...A little bit. It's - slowly - now when we just took a turn, you grabbed hold.

MUZIO: Yeah, yeah. What you don't want to do is depend on it to make an abrupt maneuver. Yeah, the way to treat these systems, at least at this point, is oh, look, I'm distracted by my phone. Wait a second. Let me see who's - no, thank you, sorry. And while that's happening, the car is gently steering itself, staying in the lane.

GLINTON: That's a thing that happens all the time.

MUZIO: Yeah, that moment there. We're in wintry Detroit. It's not completely unlikely that somebody might pull out in front of us. Or there might be a really compelling reason why I need to steer or break with gusto. By the way, just to reiterate the point that my hands are not on the wheel (clapping) - just for effect.

GLINTON: I tell you. You know.

MUZIO: (Laughter) OK, OK.

GLINTON: No clapping, no more clapping.

MUZIO: Noted, OK. Yes, sir.

GLINTON: Are there downsides to these features that are meant to make us safer?

MUZIO: Yeah. I don't want to be overly pessimistic, but I think once drivers are aware that the car will steer itself and, you know, maintain a distance from the vehicle ahead and all that other stuff that we'll expect it to do that. So what you wouldn't want to do, and what Honda would be very clear to make sure that you don't do, is rely on this for the - like, rely on the car to drive itself. That's not what this technology does.

GLINTON: Another way to think of that is if you're limited because of a disability or you're elderly or something like that, that that will help you sort of stay in the car longer, do more things. There are all these things that help not just the average driver but someone who might be impaired.

So we made it back in one piece (laughter).

MUZIO: We did.

GLINTON: Thanks so much, Micah.

MUZIO: Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: Well, from the North American International Auto Show, Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.