Do we want to drive a car, or take a carnival ride?

One need only look at vast array of increasingly more powerful smart phones on the market to realize the science fiction of yesterday is quickly becoming today's reality. Even the sci-fi movies and TV series of the '50s and '60s did not have such infinite technological functions wrapped into such a small package, though. The genre's writers of those days simply could not fathom cramming a bunch of stuff into something as compact as a laptop, much less a palm-sized gadget. The mere mention of the word "computer" conjured up images of a monstrous floor-to-ceiling machine with blinking lights and weird noises that, after a period of time, might crank out a little piece of paper in answer to the question punched in.

    The concept of a driverless car did pop up from time to time on the big and small screens. Everybody's favorite family of the future, the Jetsons, had a flying car that could operate simply by giving it directions. There were also cars operated by robots, which could be construed as autonomous because humans were not behind the wheel.

    Prior to the '80s, when KITT, the beloved TransAm of "Knight Rider" fame wowed a new generation of sci-fi fans with his amazing human-like actions and voice that sounded uncannily like Dr. Mark Craig on "St. Elsewhere," driverless cars were most often portrayed as villains in horror films. "Christine" still sends shudders down my spine, 25 years after last seeing this expectedly chilling Stephen King flick.

    Well, the driverless car – the road version, not the flying incarnation – has moved out of the sci-fi realm and onto our streets, much like computers have entered our everyday lives and smart phones are becoming fixtures in our hands. The latest testament to this happened last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to that paves the way for autonomous cars to be on  California roads. The bill requires the state to draft regulations for testing and operating these vehicles on state roads and highways by Jan. 1, 2015.

    Although I was somewhat taken aback when reading about this, it really should have come as no surprise. This sort of thing has been at the back of automakers' minds since the 1950s, and with tech giant Google behind the autonomous technology being tested on the Toyota Prius, among others, it's time has apparently come.

    Plus, with increasing technology being employed by automakers, vehicles have been taking on minds of their own in recent years. Backup cameras provide a clearer view of what's behind the rear bumper so the driver can parallel park with ease. Adaptive cruise-control  allows vehicles to automatically accelerate and decelerate with the flow of traffic. Some even offer lane-departure warnings.

    Still, a car without a driver? Isn't that taking things just a bit too far?

    As I discovered, though, these driverless cars are not truly without a driver, as a licensed driver must still be behind the wheel to make it all legal. That way, if the autonomous functions fail, the human would serve as the backup operator.  

    Whew, that's a relief. I was concerned that humans were being replaced by machines, but we're only being relegated to backups. We still have a function!

    Proponents of the technology rave about how much safer the roads will be with autonomous cars. Google claims its fleet of a dozen robotic vehicles has logged 300,000-plus miles of autonomous driving, with pairs of people in the cars, and that the only two accidents occurred when being manually operation and rear-ended at a stop sign. Google co-founder Sergey Brin even expects self-driving cars to be much safer than those driven by human and that the quality of life will be dramatically improved for everyone. Why? Because, it can free commuters from the drudgery of driving, reduce congestion and transport people who aren't able to drive themselves, like the blind, disabled, elderly and drunk, not to mention those texting and otherwise distracted.

    OK, I'll give him that. But people in some of these categories are not likely to be legally licensed drivers, and even if they are, would they be able to take over the very moment an emergency occurs? Wouldn't using marketing strategies such as this be akin to condoning otherwise illegal driving practices?

    I, personally, am not yet sold on the driverless/autonomous/robotic car concept. I'm afraid that, should this technology eventually become the norm, which will not happen anytime soon given the $150,000-plus price tag, people will come to depend on it and not even attempt to become good drivers themselves. Teaching new drivers could also become very tricky if they think they don't need to learn all this stuff.

    Another thing to consider: Mechanics are having a hard enough time keeping up with the changing technology that goes into vehicles. How in the world are these guys going to catch up with this one? Or will only a select few be trained to handle such vehicles and the rest left in the dust?

    Admittedly, riding in a driverless car does sound kind of fun, like a carnival ride. I just wouldn't want to put my life into its high-tech hands.