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Steering clear as cars go driverless

Riding around in my automobile

No one beside me at the wheel

Closin’ my eyes for miles and miles

Computer engine runnin’ wild

Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio

With no particular place to go

Man, oh man, what Chuck Berry could have come up with to beat that safety belt that wouldn't budge ... if only he had a driverless car.

More than $80 billion — that’s not being spent, by the way, on improving public transportation — has been poured into developing the technology that at long last would eliminate what my father said was the fatal flaw of any car.

The nut behind the wheel.

General Motors — apparently having abandoned Jetson-mobiles and time-traveling DeLoreans — plans to test autonomous Volts in a part of lower Manhattan, which will shock the 80 billion Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers already stuck in New York traffic. GM says the idea is to see how driverless cars perform in "hectic and hazardous" conditions.

Heck, if it’s hectic and hazardous they want, send the prototypes down a road diet or through the Crater Lake Highway construction zone at rush hour (which is any time of day that ends with “o’clock.”)

Better yet, have them navigate a grocery store parking lot.

Ask any sane person (and by that, I mean my wife) about the horrors of being a passenger while a flummoxed, flustered and frustrated driver (and by that, I don’t mean my wife) tries to maneuver into 45 degrees of white-striped separation while dodging grocery carts, vehicles backing out (the wrong way) into one-way lanes, and wayward shoppers wandering like Pellinore wondering where they parked their questing beast.

Grocery store parking lots were designed with two objectives: A) to convince you to buy treats you don't need to soothe your angered blood; and B) to keep you in the store longer to avoid getting back into calm, comforting and clear-headed traffic.

To help drivers from blowing a fuse when going to the store, automotive tests are being conducted across the country — navigating the mysteries of Pittsburgh, climbing the streets of San Francisco and getting lost in the mysterious streets of Boston. (Trust me, you could drive forever in the streets of Boston in a minivan that never returns.)

Forget K-turns and cruise control: We’re getting prepped for the eventual takeover by wheeled Hal 9000s by TV ads that tout our current vehicles' abilities to stop on a dime to prevent accidents and solve the puzzle of parallel parking — a process that makes crossing the Seven Bridges of Königsberg seem as easy as pi.

And it appears it won’t be long until self-driving joins gluten-free eating and disco dancing among things we once were convinced were good for us.

A motley crew of crash-test dummies are sacrificing their lives as automakers get the kinks out of the cars, preparing for an epic cultural clash intended to have us reach nirvana by being backseat non-drivers who won’t rage against the machine.

We might need that serenity, given the issues inherent in going driverless. Forget such questions as whether they'll know how to yield at a four-way stop; or if they'll drive below the speed limit with a right-turn blinker flashing when the computer gets hacked ... there is metaphysical road work ahead.

Italian engineers, for instance, are developing an “ethical knob” that can be set anywhere from “full altruist” to “full egoist” — so that a car would respond to an accident by “reacting” to save your life, or the lives of passengers … but perhaps not both.

"If people have too much control over the relative risks the car makes," wonders Edmond Awad, lead researcher of MIT's "Moral Machine" project, "we could have have a 'Tragedy of the Commons' scenario, in which everyone chooses the maximum self-protective mode."

Maybe being the nut behind the wheel a while longer isn’t so bad … even in a grocery store parking lot. (Don’t tell my wife.)

Mail Tribune copy editor Robert Galvin doesn’t know what half the buttons on his dashboard are for. Contact him at rgalvin@mailtribune.com.

Steering clear as cars go driverless