Outside editorial: Future cars may be prone to rage, too

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

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In the annals of road-rage incidents, Jessica Hall's infraction seemed minor. The 25-year-old North Carolina woman was driving with three kids and a pregnant sister when traffic slowed to a crawl. A car cut in front of her - twice. Incensed, she flung a large McDonald's cup filled with ice into the other car. Luckily, no one was hurt. But Hall faced a stiff jail sentence in Virginia - two years - for launching what the law considers "a missile." (Late last week she got probation instead.)

Too bad she hadn't visited that Web site promising what's billed as the first "mobile audio system," which allows a person to add customized sounds to the vehicle's horn. We imagine a blast of "She %&(ASTERISK)! Hates Me" by Puddle of Mudd would get the point across without the cold shower of ice. Or, conversely, maybe she should have invested in calming, lavender-scented tires, recently introduced by Kumho Tires.

Look, Chicagoans know about road rage. Last year, an automobile membership club named Chicago the place where you're most likely to curse at another driver. All of this suggests that people need cars that can do a lot more than avoid collisions and parallel park themselves, as some of the new models do.

They need cars with superior social skills.

Enter four inventors working for Toyota in Japan. A while back they earned a patent for just such a car. Unlike the current unexpressive models, this car could appear to cry, laugh, wink or glower. The designers described a car with headlights that vary in intensity, outfitted with hood slits and ornamentation designed to look like eyebrows, eyelids and tears.

You graciously want to let that motorist merge? The car can signal that with a wink. You're sorry you cut off a driver? The car illuminates a "teardrop" light below the headlight.

If someone else misbehaves on the road, your car's computer keeps track. It notes certain factors - like a driver stomping on the brake because of a reckless lane cutter. When the computer has tallied a sufficient number of aggravating incidents, its software triggers a change in the car's appearance. Its eyebrows light up and the hood glows red. The car is angry! But remember, it could be mostly the car - not the driver - that decides when to seethe.

Magnificent idea.

We'd go a step further. All cars have onboard computers, right? Why not create the potential for one car to hack into another's computer? We're thinking along the lines of that great scene in the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," in which the Enterprise disables Khan's ship with a secret code that lowers its shields.

What if the cars alone decided when and if they were wronged? What if they were programmed to react, first mildly, and then with greater ire? A driver whose car strayed too often into someone else's lane without signaling might find that his seat was warming even though he hadn't turned on the controls. Someone who didn't signal appropriately might find that his radio would play only one song - a Donnie & Marie classic? The theme song from "Titanic"? - over and over.

Repeated transgressions could bring a mild electric shock from the steering wheel. Or a flat tire. Instead of a warning light to alert a motorist to check the oil, there could be a message from the other car, toting up your driving transgressions and notifying you of the punishment.

And when the cops pull you over, you can just shrug and blame it all on your irascible Camry.

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