Here’s the problem. Humans are not always very good in emergencies. We can be overwhelmed and often fail to react fast enough or in the right way. We drive down the highway, we hit a spot slick with ice. Most drivers have been told that you always need to steer into the skid to allow the wheels to regain directional stability and your ability to steer.
But how many drivers panic and forget, especially here in Maryland, where they may not encounter an icy road but once or twice every couple of years?
An autonomous car, equipped with the latest sensors and a computer that could execute millions of calculations per second to determine exactly just the right amount of angle to steer and when to brake or accelerate, would never make that mistake and could avoid many car accidents.
And therefore, it is likely that autonomous cars would be much safer, most of the time, than human controlled vehicles. But ironically, that which would make us safer most of the time would likely make us less safe when the computer could not arrive at a solution.
Because we would lose what little experience we do have, because we would never have to operate a vehicle. This phenomenon has been seen in recent airplane crashes, where seemingly minor problems quickly overwhelm the pilots and they are left foundering, unable to save themselves or their aircraft.
This may seem like an abstract discussion, but cars are rapidly gaining many features that are pushing them toward autonomy. Given the terrible death toll that results every year, increasing the presence of these features is inevitable.
However, this autonomy may bring a new, but different, set of problems when it arrives.
NPR.com, “Hands-Free, Mind-Free: What We Lose Through Automation,” September 29, 2014