Hold my beer and watch this; what could go wrong?

“What could go wrong?” has to rate high in the hierarchy of famous last words. (Are you sighing that a bad pun starts the column?)

Dave Millhouser

The phrase makes for great YouTube videos and explains, in part, why women live longer than men. They seem to be born with a gene that resists certain forms of “dumb.”

On the other hand, a case can be made that, properly used, those four words could be a force for good.

In 1980, a coach was crossing the Sunshine Skyway span over the mouth of Tampa Bay. It was foggy, but heck, this was an interstate and the driver could sorta see the taillights of a car in front of the bus. He pressed on.

“What could go wrong?”

In this case those taillights disappeared, as did the roadway, which, like the car, had dropped into the sea. A ship had struck the bridge, the center span collapsed and the bus fell 150 feet.

It is human nature to take things for granted. Gee, that road was there yesterday, so it’s likely still OK. Every time, so far, when I’ve stepped on the brakes, the bus has responded appropriately, and when cars approach a red light, they usually stop.

You get it. Our lives are based on the idea that things work as designed — and they usually do.

Airplane pilots are trained to know the location of the nearest airport, just in case something goes awry. A good idea, and consider the fact that they aren’t surrounded by kamikaze car drivers the way we are.

Bob, the Methodist Minister who taught me to drive a bus, made things very simple (necessary in my case). It seems likely that he felt more confident in prayer than in my abilities.

His advice: “Stay on the road” and “Assume the other guy will do the wrong thing, and he will rarely disappoint you.”

Staying on the road seemed obvious until he explained that leaving the highway to avoid an accident often could do more damage than plowing through a few cars.

The biggie, though, was to expect the other guy to do the wrong thing. In real life, defensive driving is a hybrid of anticipating bad behavior on the part of equipment, infrastructure and other drivers. In other words, “What could go wrong?”

Buses tend to be more reliable now. There are few examples of brakes failing or major components parting company with the coach, but that may be a cosmic trick lulling us into complacency. That very rarity makes us less prepared to deal with problems when they occur.

The real fun is with other drivers. The possibilities for bad behavior are breathtaking. Commuters reading books as they drive (or doing their hair), confusion as to whether a road is serious about being “one way,” drivers steering with their feet (honest) – heck, you get it.

The point is to embrace the chaos and make it a game. Entertain yourself while driving by thinking about what would happen if that guy ran the red light, if this puddle is actually a bottomless pit, or if you stepped on the accelerator and nothing happened.     Possibilities are endless, and, if you successfully anticipate them, often great fun.

The imminent advent of driverless vehicles offers a whole new universe of amusement. First, there is the joy of watching engineers work the bugs out of the system. I’m not smart enough to know what could go wrong, but I sure hope they are.

It should be fun to see. My best guess is that they will have to develop, early on, “What could go wrong?” technology to deal with things like, oh, say, bridge spans that have gone missing.

I’m pretty sure they’ve thought of that one, but I’ll betcha there will be a few they haven’t anticipated.

The good news is that once they solve a problem, it’s fixed throughout the system. The bad news is that if there is a snafu, it’s throughout the system – “What could go wrong?” on steroids.

Then we get to mix autonomous vehicles in traffic with humans who are neither predictable nor logical. At some point it will all work, but the interim is going to be riveting. Evolution is rarely pretty; ask any T-Rex.

I’m meandering toward two points here. The first is that keeping “What could go wrong?” in mind will probably always be both good practice and entertaining.

Second, emerging technology will not change that, just shift it into new dimensions.

Won’t we miss the road rage component? Will there be a way for one computer to curse another? Will there be a rage button? Or will it be automatic?

My best guess is that autonomous vehicles won’t be as likely to do some of the spectacularly stupid things we tried when we were young.

Perhaps they will offer several driving modes: luxury, sporty and hold my beer and watch this!

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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