Why Self-Driving Cars Will Be Unacceptably Lethal

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There is a very specific reason why self-driving cars will not become successful or acceptable until we completely get rid of the human being behind the wheel. As a result, self-driving cars are further out into the future than currently anticipated.

Those of us who are technology geeks find self-driving cars fascinating. It's almost a goal in itself. Others are simply lazy or bad drivers and just want to be relieved of their duty to drive, just like other people are lazy in general and don't want to work.

Let's start with this premise for the self-driving car future on the horizon: There will be a human being behind the wheel who must be ready to take over on a split-second notice, if the car's computer can't handle the situation.

With this premise in mind, ask why people want a self-driving car in the first place. They say they want to focus on other things, such as doing work or engaging in social media.

We immediately encounter contradiction number one: If you are doing something else (reading or writing or equivalent), then you cannot be adequately prepared to take over the car on a split second's notice. You have no idea of the traffic situation.

One of the things we do when we drive our current cars is we look around constantly. We look in our side mirrors, in the rear-view mirror, we survey the cars, pedestrians, bicyclists and other traffic actors so we can anticipate any sudden and irrational moves by others.

For example, by constantly looking in the mirrors, I know if there's a car approaching from behind in the lane beside me, so I can know whether I can make a sudden maneuver into that lane if a (motor)bike were to suddenly fall in front of me. If I don't know what's approaching me from behind in the lanes to the right and left, I don't know what kind of sudden maneuver I can make to avoid the new emergency surprise. A bad accident could result.

In the self-driving car scenario, the point seems to be that I shouldn't be engaged in any such monitoring activities. I'm supposed to be reading or writing or something of that kind. But then I can't be prepared to take over on a split second's notice!

In other words, if the goal of a self-driving car is to allow the driver to focus on other things, the goal cannot be achieved. You can't be reading a magazine or typing emails as if you were a passenger. You need to be fully prepared to take over the car on a split second's notice.

But let's say you could get there. How would you wade from here to there? How would we go from today's cars, where driving is the person's responsibility, to the self-driving car in baby steps over decades?

Driving a car is much about experience. Just like pilots, those who drive cars the most typically do it the best. We learn to handle our cars by doing it as often as possible. Do you want to ride in a plane where the pilot is active almost every day, or one who takes the wheel on rare occasions?

We saw last June at San Francisco Airport what happens when an inexperienced pilot has to take the wheel on short notice.

The same thing is true in cars: Would you like the people driving around you to have minimal experience in driving? There is a reason insurance rates are higher for inexperienced drivers.

The same thing will happen if we wade into the self-driving car nirvana in slow steps:

  1. First, the car will start braking for you.
  2. Second, the car will start accelerating for you.
  3. Third, the car will start steering for you.

We already have cars in the market that do all of these things. Many cars now have adaptive cruise control, which is automated braking and steering. Other cars actually steer for you in some circumstances, e.g., several of the newest Mercedes models.

Eventually, step by step, automating the driving experience will reduce driver skills. Even today, how about learning to brake if your car has anti-lock brakes? How about learning how to park if your car has a backup camera?

How about learning how to keep the distance to the car in front of you if the car does it automatically? Why bother learning how to brake if the car brakes for you automatically?

I think you can see where this is going. The closer we get to a fully automated car, the more incapable people will be to take over -- even if they are 100% focused on it, not reading tweets or typing emails or anything else.

The problem becomes more difficult the closer we get to an automated car. How are we supposed to learn how to ride a bicycle on a split second's notice if we have never done it? Driving skill is one that depends on constant learning and repetition.

We have established two things:

1. Getting to a fully automated car is pointless if we have to stand ready to take over the car on a split second's notice. It does not free up time.

2. If we wade into the automated car slowly, over time, we lose all skills to take over driving the car. This makes the transition itself increasingly dangerous over time.

There is only one scenario where at least the theory of the self-driving car works, and it may be an unacceptable one for a very long time to come. This scenario is a complete break with a human taking over driving the car.

What this means is: Win or lose, the only way you could get to a self-driving car is to wait until the moment that you can be a complete back-seat driver. There would be no requirement to take over driving the car in an emergency. The car would be your perpetual limo driver.

In this fully automated scenario, there would not be any pretense of a human behind the wheel ready to take over. You would just sit in the car and hope that the car doesn't get into an accident. Try doing that while focusing on reading the paper or typing an email!

The bottom line is it appears most people have not thought through what it it really means to transition into a self-driving car. It is not without merit, but it is extremely difficult to accomplish without severe problems. The car companies will quickly race to get to the 99% automated point, but even that will cause increasing problems over time.

Do you really want self-driving, or semi-self-driving cars, around you in traffic, with people who have been weaned off their driver skills behind the wheel?


This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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