California just became the third state to legalize autonomous cars. They’re not available to consumers yet, but test vehicles can now operate in public there, just as they can in Nevada and Florida. I reacted to this news with delight, while others had a more sober appraisal:
I have adapted seamlessly to so many tech changes in my lifetime. But driverless cars bring out inner 19th century Luddite in me.—
Tom Tomorrow (@tomtomorrow) September 28, 2012
I’ve written about the implications of driverless cars before, for everything from personal responsibility to childhood rites of passage. But Tom’s quote above inspired me to back up a bit and ask a more fundamental question:
Just what is it about self-driving cars that freaks us out so much?
I’m a strong advocate, and I admit even I’m a little bit freaked out. Well, it turns out our mutual trepidation is perfectly justifiable, and here are 3 reasons why. (I couldn’t resist adding a quick rebuttal at the end… which you may or may not find convincing). If you’d like to catch up on how driverless cars work, stop by this quick summary before we begin.
Why Driverless Cars Freak Us the Heck Out
1. Computers fail. This is what Tom was getting at. As much as I might talk up the smarts of an automated car, the fact is computers don’t work 100.00% of the time, and complex ones tend to fail more often. A memory conflict with your computer’s graphics card is a temporary annoyance. But a memory conflict with your car’s steering system is potentially deadly, giving “system crash” a chilling new meaning.
2. No one’s responsible. Suppose, heaven forfend, you step into the street and get hit by an an auto-auto. To top off your broken leg, you’d be faced with a legal and moral labyrinth. Who’d be responsible? Surely not passive Sam. Would it be Lisa’s fault, for sending her auto-car into the world? Would software designers need malpractice insurance? Manufacturers today are already worried that they might be on the hook. It’s a gray area that knows no bounds, and we humans have a tough time dealing with that.
3. It goes against a lifetime of learning. “Keep your eyes the road. Hands at ten and two. Check your blind spots.” The importance of car safety has been drilled into us since we were teenagers, and daily accident reports are a ghastly reminder of the consequences of failure. Having people’s lives in your hands is a tremendous responsibility, and not one that’s easy to relinquish. I’d imagine it’s harder the longer you’ve been driving.
These are valid concerns, strong enough to sway many people. This is partly because they carry emotional resonance, whereas the cold logic of what I’m about to say does not. Personally, I’m convinced by the numbers. But I can’t deny that even my stomach will be doing flips the first time I ride in a driverless car. Make no mistake, these fears are worth taking seriously, not to be dismissed as simple Luddism.
Why I Love Driverless Cars Anyway
Okay, here’s the one-line argument in favor: It’s true, a self-driving car is not perfect, but it will still be a significantly better driver than you.
Listen: Human error is a contributing factor in over 90% of traffic accidents. Automated cars will never be able to reduce accidents to zero, but you and I can’t even come close. We’re people. We drive when we’re tired, or upset, or when we think we’re sober. We daydream about new jobs, we fiddle with the stereo, we chat with our friends. Meanwhile, a robot driver is focused on just one single task, cannot be distracted, and will never, ever get tired of doing it.
Bonus reason: If you’re very young, elderly, blind, or disabled, you can still enjoy the freedom and mobility of a car, without having to drive.
Okay, what it really comes down to is, my neighbor drives like a drunken rhinoceros, while robot cars are built for the task and extensively tested. I know which one I’d rather see behind the wheel.
What do you think? Are driverless cars amazing or terrifying? Would you ever get one? And if you live in CA, NV or FL, have you seen one yet?