The Big Problem With Self-Driving Cars Is People

And we’ll go out of our way to make the problem worse

Reading Body Language: A purely interpretive problem that self-driving cars cannot yet solve is that of making sense of the way people hold themselves and move. For instance, a self-driving car could not tell what any human driver could take in at a glance: The couple conversing animatedly near the curb [left] are not about to wander into traffic. If, however, one person turns away from the other and in the direction of the street, it means she’s about to cross [right].

The engineers who built routers for the fledgling ARPANET in 1969 never dreamed that networking technology would upend journalism. Nor did anyone guess that cellular communication would make people ignore one another at the dinner table. Early users of email had no idea of spam. Henry Ford did not foresee the traffic jam.

Technology has unintended consequences. Sometimes they are large and tumultuous. It is often well worth the trouble of trying to figure them out ahead of time.

Right now, the new technology with the biggest buzz is the self-driving car. Are there any likely unintended consequences of the widespread adoption of self-driving cars? You bet there are! I can think of two: Such cars will be pariahs, and their owners will act obnoxiously.

Both difficulties will emerge months or perhaps years after truly self-driving cars have been brought to market. Before then, engineers have a great deal of work ahead of them to make the cars safer, more capable, and more foolproof and to convince regulators to allow them onto the roads. These objectives are going to take longer than many proponents of automated driving realize or are prepared to admit.

03. August 2017

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