We (Consumers) Need to be Ready for Driverless Cars

I know nothing about the inner workings of autonomous car technology. I also know nothing about how regular ICE (internal combustion engine) cars work. I do drive multiple times a day, every day. In summation, I am the perfect target consumer of a driverless car.

I have seen the videos of how driverless cars work, the feel-good story of a blind man “driving” for the first time since he lost his sight, and even incredible footage of how driverless cars deal with bizarre road scenarios (skip to 7:50, it’s mind-blowing).

I believe driverless cars are the future of personal transportation and I hope they become available soon. Every day I drive in notoriously frightening Miami-Dade county, fearing for my life as vehicles zip around, stop short, and merge unsafely. Almost every day I say (usually to myself, but sometimes to a passenger), “I can’t wait for driverless cars, I hope they come soon.”

Indeed, I would LOVE to pass off the life-threatening task of navigating I-95 to a machine designed specifically to do so. However, I have found that not everyone is as excited as me. The three most common responses from people who have not accepted the concept of autonomous vehicles are:

  1. What if it gets hacked and someone remotely crashes your car?
  2. I like driving and/or I like working on ICEs. I don’t want cars to become “just another ‘smart’ device”.
  3. What if you are in a life-or-death situation where the only two options are to hit the little kid who just ran into the street in front of you OR to swerve out of the way and hit either another car (killing the passengers) or an obstacle that would kill you?

My responses to these things are thus:

  1. What if an airplane’s autopilot gets hacked and someone remotely crashes the plane? Idk. Perhaps the car could have emergency manual controls and hand over control to the human if it detects any unauthorized access to its system. I don’t know enough about “hacking” to answer this question at all. Then again, neither do the people asking this question know enough to be asking it.
  2. I admit I cannot relate to this view because I don’t particularly enjoy the act of driving (don’t hate it either, but it is not a hobby) and I do not work on ICEs. However… is not the safety of the human population more important than the enjoyment people get out of driving cars? Over one million people die in road accidents each year… Every driverless car we put on the road replacing a driver like me who doesn’t care one way or another makes the world safer. I like to imagine a future where the vast majority of cars are driverless and accidents are incredibly rare. In such a future, traditional car enthusiasts could still drive and work on ICE cars but the overall system would be safer.
  3. First of all, I don’t think there are any real-world scenarios in which there are only two possible outcomes. Second of all, this scenario assumes that the driver can be surprised by a child jumping into the road. A human driver can be surprised, yes. But a driverless car sees in 360 degrees simultaneously and would have seen that kid coming from 30 feet away and stopped before the danger occurred. In a world where all cars are driverless, EVERY car on the road would stop long in advance to avoid hitting the child. In a world of all driverless cars, there are no accidents.

This is my thesis statement: a driverless car is better at driving than a human is. (To clarify, I’m talking about average road driving and commuting etc. Not racing, not off-road, not treacherous mountain pass with a drop-off cliff on one side etc.) Let us break it down.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Field of vision 114 degrees (binocular) with 60 to 70 peripheral 360 degrees

This is pretty self explanatory. A human can only see about 114 degrees forward. With the aid of mirrors, we can also see behind us, but at the cost of taking our eyes off what is in front of us. Driverless cars can see EVERYTHING at the same time. Everything! They don’t need mirrors! How many times have you been driving and been surprised or startled by something that came from the left or right of you, like another driver deciding to make a sudden turn when maybe they shouldn’t have? Well a driverless car would never be surprised by that because they have no right or left. No sides. Just complete, 360 degree vision. Tell me how a human can compete with that. Answer: we can’t. NEXT.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Reaction time human speed aka SLOW (half as econd?) computer speed aka FAST (microseconds?)

My usual first-page-of-Google search isn’t yielding as quick and obvious answers as I typically like, but I don’t think I need hard data to remind us all that humans are slow and dumb and computers are comparatively very fast. If you see an obstacle and need to stop, it takes at least half a second to start braking. Okay? And what if the reason for your braking is NOT in your 114 field of vision? Then you have to spend another second or two turning your head to look at it before reacting? Geez just pronounce me dead already. An autonomous car would start braking before you could even see or interpret the obstacle.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Decision making Makes occasional decisions at human speed aka SLOW Makes multiple decisions per second (I think I heard 15/second somewhere?)

Human drivers basically don’t make decisions about changing lanes or defensive maneuvers until they need to. Driverless cars are constantly analyzing their environment and always know the best maneuver to make at any moment, including defensive maneuvers. Beat that, human who is singing along to a song on the radio right now.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Distractions/focus so freaking many/unfocused literally zero/no such thing as focus because it is a computer

Every human driver is driving distracted. Even if you are not listening to the radio or talking on the phone/to a passenger, you are thinking about multiple things. No human can focus 100% on the task of driving. You are thinking about your destination. You are thinking about how annoying it is that you missed the light. You are thinking about making plans with your friends etc. A driverless car doesn’t have friends. It doesn’t have thoughts and thus cannot be distracted.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Aggressive driving LOL no

In the same way driverless cars can’t get distracted because they don’t have thoughts, they also do not have emotions that negatively affect their focus and driving. Moving on.

Factor Human driver Autonomous
Mistakes many few, practically zero?

I’ll admit it. I’ve accidentally put my car in the wrong gear a time or two. Stopped at a green light. Turned into the wrong lane. Gone at a 4-way stop when maybe it wasn’t my turn. Humans make mistakes. You know who doesn’t? Autonomous cars.

As far as I can tell, there have been no major accidents involving driverless cars in the six or so years they have been being road-tested in California. Google and friends report a smattering of minor incidents which almost always involve a human behind the driverless car rear-ending it because the driverless car stopped when the human didn’t expect them to. Engineers are working on improving this. I love the accident report mentioned in this article about the human who tried to go when a different lane got a green light and their own lane was still red and they rear-ended the driverless car in front of them. I also like the one about a driverless car not continuing through an intersection when the light was green because the traffic was heavy and there was not space to make it across the intersection without blocking (praise GAWD I hate when intersections are blocked) and the human behind it kept on going. LOL humans.

Try as the nay-sayers might to denounce the concept of autonomous cars, they are clearly superior to human drivers. I hope they come to the consumer market soon and that when they do, we consumers will welcome them with open arms and start reaping the benefits of safer roads.