Thoughtlessness and Autonomous Vehicles

I have been fairly skeptical of autonomous vehicles. The prediction that we are only 5 or 10 years away seem like they could be repeated every 5 or 10 years when the prediction comes due. Most of the headline-grabbing technology behind autonomous vehicles is being built in Silicon Valley, where extravagant claims and myopic interests don’t really consider the rest of the world. However, when it comes to non-Californian terrain, non-Californian weather, non-Californian roads, rural communities where maps aren’t even correct, differing human driving habits, and huge distances between cities these Utopian dreams confront formidable problems. It’s not that I don’t believe autonomous vehicles can one day work, I just look at the distance between here and there and wonder how we will close the gap.

That said, I recently had three experiences that changed my attitude.

  1. I received a speeding ticket. I live in an area with lots of open 4 lane country roads. It is very easy to move safely at high speeds and most people do. I was going down a hill taking my daughter to school when the speed limit dropped fairly suddenly and I didn‘t see the sign. I was soon pulled over and received a ticket.
  2. A similar thing happened on a different country road driving my son to school a month later. This is where I learned that police in Texas don’t seem to give warnings, unlike everywhere else I’ve lived.
  3. I was backing out of the driveway. I had looked behind me, but apparently not enough. As I backed into the street I saw a women out for her morning walk standing right next to my car, looking reasonably put out. She had obviously been walking on the sidewalk and stopped because it was clear I didn’t see her while backing out of the driveway.

These three experience might lead you to believe I am a bad driver. Fair enough, but I will say this. I was not in a rush when I was speeding, I was just thoughtless. I was not speeding out of my driveway without a glance. I looked, didn’t see anything, and began backing out, glancing in my sideview mirrors. This has worked just fine for me for years, my driver’s education teaching to twist myself so that I was looking over the back of the seat the entire team I reversed was forgotten a long time ago. It is clear to me how easy it is to slip into thoughtlessness, all the while driving machines that kill.

Thankfully, many of these thoughtless tendencies have been partially mitigated by technological advancement. Cruise control and rear view cameras are built to address these very problems. In fact, I have cut down my speeding by basically doing what an autonomous vehicle would do and setting cruise control on almost every road at a legal speed.

The promise of autonomous vehicles is that they will remove us thoughtless humans from the equation entirely. My three experiences have flipped a switch in my mind, where I want the automated driving future. I’m still skeptical, but now I want to be proven wrong.