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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Self-driving cars? How about automatic high beams?

July 16. 2017 11:25PM

The sudden pour started shortly after 7 p.m. when I was driving home after the early movie. The rain was heavy but nothing to worry about. The wipers worked fine, and I could see through the windshield quite well.

However, in five minutes the situation got much worse. The size of the raindrops was now menacingly large and hitting the windshield hard. They made a loud noise on the glass and the roof of my car. I saw the stream of water move every time the wiper pushed the water sideways. I began slowing down and squinted my eyes to see the road surface.

I was driving on a two-lane country road with many curves. I could feel my tension rising as I felt some trouble seeing what was ahead. The dividing yellow line on the road was hardly visible, and some areas of the road had accumulated a few inches of water that made a loud sound when the car hit the puddle. Now I was scared.

Suddenly around the bend, a stream of cars appeared on the opposite lane. They all had high beams on. I was blinded. Their light filled my windshield, and I couldn’t see much. I had to slow down and look to the right to ensure my car didn’t fall off the road’s edge. I flashed my signal to the oncoming cars to drop down the beam, but nobody responded. In a way, I understood that they too were struggling to see ahead. But what about me? I couldn’t see a thing.

I’ve read various articles about autonomous driving systems being tried out by major automobile manufacturers. These outfits encompass not only the major automakers such as GM, Toyota and Mercedes, but also the internet-related giants such as Google and Apple. These articles make you feel as though self-driving cars are around the corner. Really?

Let’s reflect on the blinding high beams. Why is it so difficult to turn down the headlights automatically when being approached by a car in the opposite lane? The 10 cars that went by with high beams never dropped down. That’s probably because those drivers also couldn’t see well in the deluge. Such an automatic light control cannot possibly be more complicated than the futuristic autonomous driving car system.

I am not a critic of American civilization. In fact, I have no idea who really is qualified to make comments criticizing our trend in technology. But I have some apprehension that we tend to go after grandiose rainbow schemes that impress the press but not the public. There probably is a strong trend in the investment community to pour money in a long-range grand scheme such as autonomous driving than just shutting down the high beams automatically in a rain storm. One is a multimillion dollar investment while the automatic switch for the high beams is nothing but a few technicians’ design job. People can’t get excited about that, can they?

We spend investment funds on futuristic projects because the excitement leads us there. Space travel launched by rockets, sealed trains traveling through a vacuum tunnel and autonomous driving cars are just a few examples. What bothers me is that while we are working on these projects, 40 percent of our automobile market share went to Japanese car makers. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Mazda together sell more than four cars out of every 10 purchased here. Why? Well, their products are more reliable. And the public wants reliable autos priced reasonably.

Furthermore, the combined market share of all foreign automakers now exceeds 45 percent. To make matters worse, the luxury automobiles are all from foreign makers. Cadillac used to be an established lexicon in American language to express the top-grade product. “This is Cadillac of pens” or “This is Cadillac of bicycles.” Unfortunately, the crown brand no longer wears the crown, and the precious lexicon is no longer used.

To rescue our nation from bankruptcy, we should expand our efforts to invent more everyday solutions and manufacture them here. There are so many opportunities for inventors to work on products that make aging people’s lives easier and healthier.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle was named by MIT as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century. Write to him at

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