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Trusting Technology: Are you willing to give up the steering wheel?

technologyImagine, in a few years’ time, you’re standing on a street corner waiting for your Uber to arrive. It turns up, exactly when it said it would, but there’s no driver. Would you climb in? Are you ready to put your faith in driverless technology? This scenario is not that far off. Uber are trialling driverless cars in Pittsburg, USA, right now, with the safety net of a human sitting at the dual controls in case of any computing mistakes. Recent information suggests that we’ll need much convincing to hand over control.

The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that many people feel that innovation is happening ‘too quickly’ and is being driven by the greed of businesses which innovate for the sake of innovation – not to make the world a better place.

The advent of autonomous vehicles has raised very serious questions around safety. How will a vehicle be able to make a decision between who lives and dies when the physics of a crash (momentum, stopping distance, speed etc.) make one inevitable? Does the vehicle save its ‘driver’ (the owner) at the expense of the owner of the other vehicle? If every autonomous vehicle took this choice, wouldn’t this be a Mexican stand-off? What if the choice is between the owner of the vehicle or a mother pushing a pram across the road?

technologyIn a recent survey conducted by IEEE, more than two-thirds of the participants said they’re not ready to let go of the steering wheel because they’re anxious something might go wrong. Yet the evidence tells us that something’s already wrong with the way we drive. Each year, there are 1.25 million road accidents around the world, yet it seems we’d prefer to continue placing our trust in complete strangers, and our own driving fallibilities, rather than in a future where our recklessness ceases to be a factor.

The issue over the future uptake of driverless cars isn’t technological, it’s psychological .

The need to re-evaluate the cost of future progress

When commercial flights took off in the 60s and 70s with passengers regularly making long distance trips, they knew that it wasn’t a 100% guarantee that the plane wouldn’t crash. Many of those people had grown up with the rise of aviation and had witnessed, sometimes first hand during wars, planes crashing and the deaths they had caused. Back then, the modernist approach to air travel was that the ability to travel thousands of miles to a distant part of the previously unseen world was worth the risk of flying. People might have had a fear of flying (one in three air passengers still do) but they had a greater fear of missing out.

The same could be said of space travel. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, the collective sense of achievement was palpable throughout the US and beyond. It also meant that in 1967, when Apollo 1 exploded killing its three American astronauts, it didn’t stop the NASA programme from continuing with its goals.

Despite all the facts, our psychological grip on the steering wheel is as firm as ever. Back then, it all felt like progress, yet today, technological advancement feels very different. One of the main issues with technology in 2016 is that our ultimate goal for its use is to prolong human life. If death is caused during development, it is immediately branded unacceptable and the opposite of progress. We also live under the constant microscopic lens of traditional and social media scrutiny and, in our post-modernist way, question absolutely everything.

In the first half of the last century, human life was considered differently to what it is today. Up to 100 million people sacrificed their lives in two world wars to protect our future, yet today we’re hesitant to make progress in case it costs a death. If, in 1903, the Wright brothers had died rather than succeeded in making the world’s first controlled flight, there would have been hundreds of others queuing up behind them trying to be the first to fly.

Earlier this year when a Tesla driverless vehicle caused the death of a man in Florida, the news flew around the Internet propelled by a sense of Schadenfreude. While it is true that autonomous vehicles could cause death, they will by all accounts save far more lives than they end. The 1.25 million road accidents is likely to be dramatically decreased as driverless technology rapidly improves in the future.

Let’s get technological progress back on track

Part of the current problem is that as the most entitled human beings to have ever been alive, we like to choose when we will be autonomous .

When it comes to flying we’ve never sat in the cockpit, so we’ve never thought that we’ve lost control. Even though we will happily sit through a flight with the plane flying and even landing on autopilot, because it all happens behind a locked door, we don’t think about it. We don’t consider that planes managing to stay out of each other’s flight paths using digital systems and GPS technology is similar to the way driverless cars will eventually ensure they don’t crash into each other on our roads.

Modern railway systems in the developed world have successfully shifted predominantly to automatic train operation by using computerised train systems to keep passengers safe. In the language of systems engineers, they have removed the human factor for safer transport.

However, most people don’t know how to fly a plane or drive a train, but most people do know how to drive a car. When you are in a plane (or a train) you place your trust in the pilot or the train driver as the ‘competent’ person to undertake that task. There isn’t really any relinquishing of control (as we never had it anyway) and, of course, the pilot and the train driver are out of sight, hence out of mind.

Yet when it comes to driving a car – we all feel we are competent. Learning to drive a car is almost a rite of passage. Imagine a future where people don’t know how to drive . How far off is that future? If you didn’t know how to drive, would you feel more comfortable relinquishing control of the vehicle to its computer system, seeing that you didn’t have the control in the first instance?

The science has demonstrated that autonomous vehicles are better drivers than you or me. The statistics are in and show that they will cause substantially fewer road fatalities. However, despite all the facts, our psychological grip on the steering wheel is as firm as ever.

Perhaps the answer will be in drivers unlearning how to drive a car. Perhaps vehicle manufacturers need to think of a further evolution of the autonomous vehicle that desensitises our current fleet of drivers to the fact that nobody is driving.

Until that time, we are likely to have a whole lot of nervous back seat drivers sitting in the front seat.

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8 replies »

  1. This is the future but there are more issues than just letting technology take over.
    When I board a plane there is a very remote chance that the person in control (even if it is on autopilot) will not take me where I want to go. If a car turns up with no one in it how do you know this is the one you ordered and that it will take you where you want to go. How do you know who is in control and what their intentions are. Maybe a vivid imagination (isn’t that what this blog is about) or too many bad movies but what if someone with criminal intent has control of the car.
    If I somehow board the wrong plane I know it will go to a single destination where I can get off and return. If I get in the wrong car how do I know where it is taking me, will I be able to jump out if I decide it is taking me to the wrong place – in some places in the world you may not want to go where it is taking you.
    I am not against technology but I do not have complete faith that everything performs the way it is supposed to – at least not at the moment.
    Apart from all that – I enjoy driving and would not want to give it up entirely.

    • Hi Ross, I agree with you, but how many people have heard of hacking but still do their banking online? I realise there is a difference between your life and your life savings, I think there will be a certain amount of trust that the system will work and that the bad things will happen to someone else.
      I really enjoyed a presentation at the Intelligent Transport World Congress recently, where the speaker imagined an autonomous vehicle that you could drive. It would allow you to drive 100mph, but the safety systems would take control to ensure you didn’t crash – just like some video games will allow you to drive anywhere on a circuit but not into the crowd. It’s a similar situation to people who still like changeing gears buying cars that have a semi-automatic electronic gear shift – it gives you control of gear changeing without being able to ‘grind’ the gearbox.

  2. Scott, what about the political will. In 2013 when this advent seemed to be advancing quickly and by 2020 diverless cars was thought to be a common feature on road, Obama said on TV that 45% of the global employment is dependent on transportation. days or weeks later Google announced that it has slowed down its pilot program for diverless cars without giving any reason nor any date of return. It should be noted that Google was already trialling these cars on roads. don’t know whether there is any relation between google and us president remarks.

    recently a person was fined for $7k for using a drone to collect deliverables from Bunnings store.

    i know uber and tesla are competing for diverless public cars infrastructure globally, but i question the political will. considering that so many people are involved in transportation, should this technology leads to mass unemployment, then the governments are out of door. reduction in individual incomes will have catastrophe effect on government revenues, and this would be again headache for governments.

    that is why people have voted Trump to divert from BAU (business as usual) should Clinton would have won.

  3. Interesting article, however, as I see it, the fundamental issues are the software and the vehicle, not the “technology”.
    1. Would I entrust my life to “state of the art” software? – Not on my life! One only needs to see the number of bugs and fixes in systems produced by Microsoft and Apple and Google to erode my faith that they can produce “bullet-proof software”. I can handle my pc rebooting every 2 hours and phone locking up regularly, but wouldn’t want that to happen to my car.
    2. A vehicle produced by the lowest bidder in China – I would need a lot of convincing. The whole concept of current vehicle design pivots around the driver. A vehicle designed for the passengers only is different (bus or limo) and simpler (eg box with seats) and cheaper.

  4. All very interesting but as usual, most of the facts are left out. We all board public transport so we have that knowledge that “someone else” is in control. This is just the facts we have to live with in order to get to work for a reasonable price. Planes, even though they may fly on auto pilot (even land on auto pilot) always have someone skilled that can take over at any point in time. All these planes flying around are under the same guidance system so not sure what likelihood there is of everything going wrong and all the planes hitting each other. What else is up there?
    The biggest issue with getting in a driverless car is who/what is going to take control if something goes wrong? You’re probably too involved in watching a movie, writing a report to worry about leaning over to hit the reboot button.

    When a driverless car enters the road, every other car may be a threat. It’s not like they are all controlled by the same software. There are just too many scenarios that could go wrong.
    I just need to ride my motorbike or pushbike to work to see what can go wrong and it’s getting worse every day.
    Better licensing laws and compulsory driving “skills” tests would be a better start, especially for all those people that are never going to be able to afford such a vehicle.

  5. I recall being in the flight-deck of an A320 as part of a past role, by chance they were routine testing the auto landing system that brought the aircraft in from approach to landing 100% autonomously. It even applied the brakes! My point is automation governs more of our lives than we realize, and systems are designed to be robust when risk of failure is recognized.

    Overall the safer population argument makes sense, but humans don’t think on a macro level… and the metacognitive bias of “I’m better than average” and “it wont happen to me” while flawed will undermine the safety argument. Not having to drive and removing the effort of driving in traffic… that could convince.

    More importantly to this thread is the consideration of how the Driver role will change. With automation the driver can switch off and not attend to what is happening on the road or hazards – but what if the Driver has to make a decision to stop the vehicle, will they need to monitor the vehicle continuously (as pilots do)? And what are the implications if the driver has a beer but is still in this monitoring role?

    Great article and food for thought…

  6. I think it is interesting how much technology already controls our cars. Driving my old 1984 Land Rover, with 4 speed manual gearbox, no ABS or anything remotely safety related, is a completely different experience to driving a modern car, and to be honest, it has caught me out a couple of times, having to break much harder than expected and locking up wheels! You have to be much more engaged with the driving, thinking about what is going on around you as it takes a lot more to stop or swerve a 2 ton vehicle with non of those features. If you look at people driving now – they are often sitting a few meters behind the car in front, not realising that they are relying on modern technology to avoid a crash if things go slightly wrong. If they were in an older vehicle with no technology, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
    The simple fact is though – I much prefer driving the older vehicle. I find it enjoyable and relaxing, but maybe I’m just weird!

  7. Thanks for all the comments. It is interesting to think of the possibilities and the scenarios that might play out in the future. When I look at the rate of change of technology in other areas, it is clear that AV technology is coming – political will or otherwise. The government’s uber experience and the policy catch up that happened, may just happen again. On a personal note, the blog was inspired when my family recently bought a vehicle with Adaptive Cruise Control and Park Assist function. I still struggle to trust these functions and can’t help myself but to override them at times. I too still enjoy driving. One thing I am sure of though – the future will come faster than any of us expect and with the technology will come benefits. I am working on not being left behind.

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