Inventions That Will Make Our Roads Safer – and Make You a Worse Driver Than You Already Are


The autonomous car of the future. Will you trust it to drive?

According to a 2011 Allstate survey, most Americans believe themselves to be better drivers than “those other idiots on the road.” The self-reported driving habits of respondents from this same survey—most of whom admitted to unsafe driving practices such as texting, e-mailing, driving while tired, etc.—may indicate, however, that most Americans are “those other idiots on the road.”

Regardless of their real or imagined driving abilities, most Americans would probably prefer to share their commute routes with a bevy of exceptional drivers, instead of the usual crowd of “idiots.” If most Americans are—at best—average drivers, however, how could this even be possible?

Thanks to the inventiveness of vehicle safety advocates, car companies, and geeky entrepreneurs, self-driving automobiles may merge onto our nation’s freeways, sometime in the near future. Because computers are not susceptible to intoxication, exhaustion, or horrendous judgment, such vehicles will undoubtedly improve the safety of America’s roadways. And, just as culinary skills have decreased with the increasing availability of takeout and TV dinners, self-driving automobiles are also likely to severely erode their drivers’ ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Of course, recent developments in the legality of self-driving cars notwithstanding, it may be many years before AI surrogates fully replace human drivers on America’s roads.

Fortunately, interim solutions abound. US 7,982,620, “System and method for reducing boredom while driving,” addresses the human tendency to “zone out” in dull driving situations, e.g. the flat, rural sections of I-5, all of I-505, and pretty much any highway in North Dakota. The invention is essentially a computer-controlled entertainment system, which may interact with the driver by asking questions (“are you bored?”), turning on the radio, or even showing video clips on a semi-transparent windshield display. Apart from offering the ability to watch your favorite TV show while you drive cross-country, the really neat thing about this invention is that it does not require you to possess even the most basic level of awareness about either your physical condition or your surroundings. Instead, this gadget uses electronic sensors to detect roadway variables such as terrain and traffic flow, then inputs data from these sensors into a software program that decides whether or not you, the driver, require additional stimulation. That’s right: your car’s computer is better than you at figuring out when you’re bored.

Less surprisingly, your car’s computer may also be better than you at figuring out when to merge or change lanes, whether or not your car can fit into a parking space, and—of course—how fast you should be driving, as determined by road, traffic, and weather conditions. Integrated into your car’s CPU, such systems would almost certainly protect you from accidents related to “driver error.” They could also erode your driving ability, which—statistically speaking—is likely sub-par, already.

The main problem with assisted driving is similar to the primary concern cited by both critics and proponents of autonomous driving: what if something goes wrong? If an autonomous vehicle loses its network connection (and, therefore, its GPS orientation) the confounded CPU could cause it to stop dead in the middle of an intersection, or drive straight into a brick wall.

In a driver-assisted vehicle, the human behind the wheel theoretically serves as a safety valve for this eventuality. But if road condition assessment devices routinely subvert human judgment, how useful will the human behind the wheel actually be? And what happens when the driver forgets that the driver assistance switch is turned off—or is simply too busy daydreaming (or texting) to realize that something is wrong?

Just as children who watch too much TV lose the ability to entertain themselves in its absence, it is a very real possibility that driver-assistance devices will degrade the attention spans and reaction times of the humans that they serve. If your car self-corrects (with or without your knowledge) when you attempt to merge into another vehicle, how will you learn to pay more attention to your blind spots? If your car’s CPU suddenly crashes, will your reflexes still be good enough to prevent a head-on collision?

There are no easy answers to these questions. The Luddites among us may advocate against driver-assisted and autonomous vehicles, while proponents of Jeremy Benthem and John Stuart Mill may argue that their benefits outweigh their risks. Technophiles may tout the virtue of progress, and progressive skeptics (such as your author) may reference the résumé software that simplified hiring processes, yet left employers with a glut of “unqualified” candidates.*

In the end, of course, it is likely that driver assistance technology will prevail, though whether it brings us closer to Michio Kaku’s futuristic paradise or to the kind of dystopian nightmare portrayed in films such as Terminator and WALL-E remains to be seen. No matter what the future holds, however, driver assistance technology will definitely make you a worse driver than you already are!

*Your author, a Ph.D. chemist, once received an automated e-mail response—from a Fortune 500 company—stating that her application was rejected because her résumé indicated a “lack of analytic experience.” After she spent a few minutes pondering how anyone could earn a Ph.D. in the physical sciences without analyzing mountains of data, your author realized that only a computer could be that stupid—and, ever since, has been rather skeptical of the increasing role that artificial intelligence plays in our decision-making processes.



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