Real Wheels Live: Self-driving cars

Oct 16, 2015

The Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown and guest Lou Ann Hammond discussed what they're seeing in the auto industry. Plus, they gave purchase advice to readers.

Good Morning Warren and Friends,


I've driven a group of SUVs in the last couple of weeks and my favorite is still the 2016 Hyundai Tucson. For just $27,000 you can get a decent SUV that is big and bulky, doesn't wallow when driving and has lots of standard equipment and technology. 


Tesla's cars are accelerating toward autonomous driving by adding Autosteer, Auto Lane Change and Autopark. Google is shipping a herd of autonomous vehicles to Austin, Texas. 


How many of you would let a car drive you right now? Would you consider letting ONLY the autonomous vehicles drive in the HOV lanes? No more two or more people or alternative energy vehicles, only self-driving cars? Would that make you feel more comfortable? 


The closer the nation gets to bringing autonomous vehicles out the more discussions you and I need to have about how this will be handled as cars gradually shift. 


Let's chat about cars.


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I have often thought about buying a Lexus. I always liked the styling; I thought they had kind of an understated elegance. But I have been kind of taken aback by what they have been doing on the front. I'm not crazy about this jack-o-lantern grill that they have added to all the sedans. Just curious, what is your reaction to this styling? It makes me think back to several years ago when Mazda added the big grinning expression to the front.

I do not like the current front fascia. It comes off as phony, trying much too hard.

... will continue to enjoy, albeit with improved safety, as already illustrated by the effect driver assistance technologies are having on the decline of traffic fatalities--down 10,000 annually in the US

What's to become of those who actually enjoy driving?

Where do you drive that you actually enjoy driving? I love to drive but most the time I'm driving in Sacramento or San Francisco traffic and that to me is not driving, it's dodging. 

A beautiful drive in the Sierra Nevada foothills is so much fun, but let's face it, most people the roads are so congested and there are people out there with real road rage issues that make driving not fun at all. 


Consumer Reports' "Talking Cars" podcast did a show on AWD. After extensive testing during the worst winter on record at their test track, they concluded that AWD helps getting started and up hills, but does not help turning and stopping. They recommended snow tires as more important than AWD. Of course we all knew that because we read it here.

you are making me smile even though it's Lou Ann not Lee Ann :) 

There are only four parts of the car that touch the ground. There should be considerable thought - and money - spent on those parts. 

Thank you for the heads up 

There have been many stories in the news lately about the advent of self-driving cars. Do automakers really believe that everyone wants a self driving car? I for one enjoy driving, except during commutes in rush hour. I just can't see how autonomous vehicles are going to be able to navigate on lousy DC area roads with poor lane markings, potholes and so much traffic. It is going to make already bad drivers even worse. What is your opinion on when and if such technology will be viable in every day driving.

The advent of self-driving cars is exactly that--an advent. It is caused by global governmental concern to reduce traffic fatalities, about 1.2 million annually worldwide, according to World Health Organization stats. The aim is not to take driving away from drivers or to diminish the joy thereof. The aim is to obsolete--put an end to--traffic fatalities. In the U.S, you still will have a choice to use or not use driver assistance technologies. My guess: you will bear most of the responsibility for crashes that occur if you choose not to use available driver assistance tech. Welcome to the new world of driving.

I used to commute to work when I lived in Boston. It took me about an hour, but it was fairly relaxing. Walk to the commuter rail and read the paper or do some studying. My current commute by car (Alexandria to SE DC) is about half as long. I prefer my older, longer commute. I'd happily turn the driving over to the car and relax.

Fine. No problem. That CHOICE will continue in the age of autonomous driving. But know: According to DOT and WHO, a full 70-percent of the world's traffic fatalities are caused by driver error. Don't use available driver assistance remedies at your own financial risk.

I think what would scare me more than trusting an autonomous vehicle is trusting the rest of the people in the non-autonomous vehicles. Too many times I can see that someone isn't paying attention (playing with phone, looking into their mirror, eating, etc.) BEFORE they do something stupid. It's great if a computer can quickly react once they detect that person moving into your lane, but it's quite another to avoid getting near them in the first place because you can already tell that they are likely to be dangerous.

None of this will happen overnight. It is an eventuality prompted by current reality. To wit: Our "joy of driving" is dangerously fraught with human error, directly causing 70-orcent of the annual world 1.2 million traffic fatalities annually. That has to change. Driver assistance technology helps.

I worry much more about non-autonomous vehicles. All of those drivers not paying attention seem much more dangerous to me that the cars that drive themselves.

Yours is an understandable assumption. Automotive autonomy also will involve cars talking to one another, that sort of thing. Of course, there will be problems. But, we can't continue going along killing 1.2 million people annually.

Hey, I live in Florida. Half the cars on the road look like the driver isn't doing anything. All you can see is knuckles and a hat, or else one end of a Q-tip, or fancy nails holding a cig out the window while the other hand texts. I need my hands on the wheel to practice anticipatory avoidance.

We interviewed a design group called Zoox. They had a design that airbags on the outside of a car and on the inside.

I agree, in California I see so many people talking on their cellphones and looking out the rear view mirror to see if a cop can see them. It's the new norm in driving 

Warren - Thoughts on the gasoline Golf Sportwagon? I like the way the car drives and would like a wagon or hatchback.

I like the gasoline Sport Wagon and am more than a little disappointed, in its culture not to accept failure as an option, VW's leaders stupidly screwed up their diesel emissions technology

On the site set out above, AAA tells us that the average price of regular gas has dropped by $.882 in the last year while the difference in price between regular and premium grades has increased from $.39 (12.3%) to $.488 (21.3%). My perception is that the percentage of new cars requiring premium gas is increasing. Warren and Lou Ann, do car manufacturers think that car buyers don't pay any attention to the regular/premium differential? (They probably call it the "Premium premium" in order to obfuscate.)

No. But petroleum companies think that, with cheaper regular grades, consumers are more likely to "baby" their cars with more expensive premium grades. It is opportunistic marketing. Even the lates rush of turbo fours can run well on 89 octane.

Is there any way Tesla or other autonomous car manufacturers can include an option that detects that the driver has read/sent a text while the car was moving and automatically slaps them or otherwise pulls the car over?

It sounds like a great saturday night live skit doesn't it? An electronic hand comes out of nav area and slaps them and crushes their smartphone? LOL 

Call me crazy, but I just enjoy driving. Every day I commute into downtown DC and that isn't my favorite, I'll admit. But the drive to/from gives me the opportunity to focus my attentions elsewhere and wash the day from my brain. I love the long road trips I take 4-5 times a year. The drive to Summit Point for a track day (and of course the track day itself). Are drivers the new smokers (i.e., social pariahs)?

I enjoy driving as well. I'd otherwise do something else.  But I can't argue with the numbers. Nearly 35,000 U.S. traffic deaths annually. 1.2 million worldwide, and that only is if you believe China's doctored numbers. Current evidence shows driver assistance technologies help reduce U.S. traffic accidents by 10,00 annually. Look for more of this. You still will have choices that support "joy of driving." I suspect you also will have increased responsibilities for making that choice.

How well do you like the 3 series automatic?

Give me at least $42,000 for a fully loaded--advanced safety technology--and I affirmatively, with great joy, would answer that question.

Lucas is involved in the development and design of the systems for autonomous vehicles. This the same Lucas that provided alternators, starters etc for British cars and was known as "The Prince of Darkness" Bosch is the company that provided the software so VW could beat the EPA and they also supply these systems. I dont trust them do you?

Lucas is in league with Continental, Valeo, Itt, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, SAP Hana, Google,  and a host of others developing the same technology. What does that tell you?

With all of the expense, emissions, space constraints, etc., why not simply move into a city apartment? Walking's free, and there's always Metro. (OK, maybe DC's Metro isn't a selling point, but you get my point.) Problem solved.

Good point. Keep in mind that only 15 percent of the US population, and that is being generous, actually buys a new vehicle. With vehicle prices going up, an average $33,560 now, that number likely will decrease. Soon, I'm betting, owning ACCESS to personal transportation will become as important as owning personal transportation itself.

Hiya Warren and Lou Ann--Our teenage son recently earned his driver's license and needs a car to get back and forth to his part time job. Overall, would you recommend spending on a newer model compact used car or an earlier model (i.e., older) model larger car. He is a very good driver, but I worry that an Escalade hitting his newer Corolla may not be as safe as an Escalade hitting his older Camry/etc. What do you think? Thanks!

A young man young enough to just get a drivers license and he has a job too. Congrats!

There are some great new cars out there that are not that expensive. If you're looking in the Corolla range you can also look at the Honda Civic or Accord (I really like the Accord) 

The 2016 Kia Optima just came out with their pricing and is very affordable; 

LX 2.4                    $21,840

LX 1.6T                  $23,990

EX 2.4                    $24,890

SX 2.0T                  $29,690

SXL 2.0T                $35,790


Prices do not include $825 destination charges.

Other than removing a few key individuals that perpetrated the emissions fraud, do you anticipate VW changing the manner in which they do business in the future (e.g., harmonizing models sold in Europe and U.S., offering fewer product lines, offering more product lines, re-tooling manufacturing in U.S. to support these kinds of changes, etc.). I am curious what the company will look like as it moves forward. Thanks a lot for doing these chats!

Yes, but they first have to define who those individuals are and why they did what they did. My hunch, if you create an environment in which honest failure is not tolerated, you soon will have dishonest "success."

I saw some renders for the new (2017) Impreza the other day. Of course renderings always look 100 times sportier than than the actual vehicle ends up being. But any idea when it goes on sale? These days model years seem totally out of sync. Some maker will put out a '17 model in January 2016 while others won't put out a '17 until 2017

2018, or thereabouts, and it still will be a big sedan in a world where smaller, in terms of sedans, rapidly is becoming better.

What impact would be felt if the U.S. gave more difficult driving tests to weed out marginal drivers? After taking a driver's test and training program in England, I was horrified to see how little skill is required to pass a U.S. driver's test. Better and more focused (no texting, no eating, no putting make-up on, etc.) drivers would seem to be something that would greatly reduce the number of accidents and deaths. Like you said, 70% of traffic deaths are attributable to driver error. What say you?

I think they ought to give tests to drivers that make you put make-up on and text at the same time you are driving. If you can pass the test you get your license (use, I'm being facetious) 

Yours is a good point but the ability to lapse into poor driving habits is the problem. Making the cars safer is easier. 

In the past year, in which production car under $50k have you had the most fun-to-drive/best overall driving experience?

Almost everything Hyundai and Kia, especially the Kia Optima, which I love.

Automotive technology is changing so fast -- and my commute is so convenient via public transit -- that when my car dies, my wife and will likely share a car until something really game-changing comes along. Right now I'm looking at the Tesla model 3 due out in 2017. Is anything else on the horizon?

not unless you want to spend more money. The BMW 7-series parks itself and has some of the best infotainment technology on it. 

The Toyota Prius phev satisfies most of your electric driving needs. 

Here is the Model S with a Bosch package that makes it autonomous as well as electric

We missed you last week!

And I missed you all!--the limits of technology, I guess.

I agree that new car prices are getting pretty high. And I am some one who theoretically can afford them, but chooses not to. I've been doing something I never thought I would do, and that is considering the "certified pre-owned" route for my next vehicle. Seems like an easy way to save a lot of money on relatively new cars.

And it still has a warranty from the car manufacturer - make sure that is the case, from the car manufacturer. 

Yes, CPO is the way to go 

Thank you all for joining us today. Please return next week. Special thanks to Michelle Williams, Master Gene (thanks for the fix, dude), Lou Ann Hammond, easily one of the best car journalists in America, and Ria Manglapus, without whom I could do nothing. Eat lunch.

In This Chat
Warren Brown
Warren Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

On Wheels Archive

Real Wheels Live Q&A Archive
Lou Ann Hammond
Lou Ann Hammond is the founder and owner of the first privately owned automobile website Recently Lou Ann has developed an automotive and energy issues related website,, that covers a broader range of subjects than solely the automotive or the energy industry.
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