Monday, December 10, 2007

The Human Side of Automated Driving

The graphic attracted my eye. It showed a 1950s-mom type looking alarmed as she sat beside a futuristic robot driving an equally improbable-looking car. The headline? "In the Future, Smart People Will Let Cars Take Control." Which implies, of course, only dumb people won't. But I'm not sure that's what the author had in mind.

John Tierney wrote in last week's online edition of the New York Times that we are getting closer each year to the point where completely automated control of automobiles in realistic driving situations will become a reality, at least from the technological point of view. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been running a driverless-car Grand Prix for the last four years. In 2004, despite a relatively unobstructed route on Western salt flats, none of the vehicles got farther than seven miles before breaking down, crashing, or otherwise dropping out of the race. But this year, six cars finished a much more challenging sixty-mile course that included live traffic. Experts say that in five to fifteen years, using technologies ranging from millimeter-wave radar to GPS and artificial-intelligence decision systems, it will be both practical and safe to hand control of a properly equipped vehicle over to the equivalent of a robot driver for a good part of many auto trips. But will we?

There is that in humans which is glad for help, but rebels at a complete takeover. While we have been smoothly adapting to incremental automation of cars for decades, a complete takeover is a different matter. Almost nobody objected in the late 1920s to the introduction of what was then called the "self-starter" that replaced turning a crank in front of your car with turning an ignition key. (The only people who grumbled about it back then were men who liked the fact that most women were simply not strong enough to start a car the old-fashioned way, and therefore couldn't drive!) Automatic transmissions came next, and have taken over most non-U. S. markets except in places where drivers (again, men, mostly) take pride in shifting for themselves. Power steering, power brakes, anti-lock braking, and cruise control are all automatic systems that we have adopted almost without a quibble. But I think most people will at least stop to think before they press a button that relinquishes total control of the vehicle to a computer, or robot, or servomechanism, or whatever we'll choose to call it.

And well they might hesitate. Tierney notes that automatically piloted vehicles can follow much more closely in safety than cars being driven by humans. He cites a recent experiment in which engineers directed a group of driverless passenger cars to drive at 65 m. p. h. spaced just fifteen feet apart, with no untoward results. This has obvious positive implications for increasing the capacity of existing freeways. But he doesn't say if the interstate was cleared of all other traffic for this experiment. As for safety, automatic vehicle control doesn't have to be perfect—only better than what we have now, a system in which over 42,000 people died on U. S. roadways alone in 2006, the vast majority because of accidents due to human error rather than mechanical failures.

If we are going to go to totally automatic control for automobiles, it seems like there will have to be a systematic effort to organize the times, places, and conditions under which this kind of control can be used. You can bet that the fifteen-foot-spacing experiment would have failed spectacularly if even one of those cars were driven by a human. The great virtue of machine control is that it's much more predictable than humans, who can be distracted by anything from a stray wasp to a cell phone call and do anything or nothing as a consequence. One expert imagines that we will have special total-control lanes on freeways much like high-occupancy-vehicle lanes today, and no manually controlled vehicles will be allowed inside such lanes.

That's one way to do it, certainly. But I for one look forward to the day when we have door-to-door robot chauffeurs. I would like nothing better than to get in my car, program in my destination, and then sit back and read or work or listen to music or enjoy the scenery, or in fact any of the other things I can do right now on a train ride, which is at present practical transportation in the U. S. only in the northeast corridor. For decades we have fussed about the urban sprawl caused by the automobile and how much better things are handled (according to some) when public transportation is used instead of cars. It may be that automatic vehicle control will provide some kind of third way that will alleviate at least some of the problems caused by the automobile. If we can let go of the control thing, maybe we can do something similar with the ownership thing too, although as long as people want to work in cities and live in the country, you're going to have to find some way to get millions of bodies into the city in the morning and back to the country in the evening. But if we could space vehicles safely only fifteen feet apart and let them go sixty or eighty m. p. h. on the freeways, and come up with some software that would deal with traffic jams and other unpredictable but inevitable problems, commuting might become both safer, more fuel-efficient, and more pleasant.

Before many more of these futuristic visions happen, though, we are going to have to change some of our attitudes. There are sure to be a few drive-it-myself-or-nothing folks who will say that we'll have to pry their cold, dead fingers off the steering wheel before we can get them to agree to use totally automated driving. And if the thing isn't handled well politically, such a minority could spoil a potentially good thing for the rest of us. The right to drive your own car with your own hands on the steering wheel is one of those assumed rights that we accept almost without thinking about it, but if the day comes when it is more of a hazard than a public good, we may have to think about it twice—and then give it up.

Sources: The New York Times online article referred to appeared on Dec. 4, 2007 at Tierney refers to a University of California Transportation Center article by Steven Shladover published in the Spring 2000 edition of the center's Access Magazine (

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