In trying to save lives with technology, will we die of boredom?
Automation is a noble ideal. Tens of thousands of Americans die and millions are injured in car crashes each year, often as a result of distractions, disabilities, and other human failures. It stands to reason that removing the human element from the equation would dramatically reduce unnecessary deaths and injuries on American roads, and anyone reading this knows at least one person who claims to have been “saved” by a their technology. automobiles.
Every automotive design innovation that hits the market these days seems to free up space for something else. New gear selectors free up space on the center console. Voice commands and touch screens free up space on the steering wheel and dashboard. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) conspicuously give us less to actively monitor, effectively freeing our attention. But why?
The autonomous car is a fantasy that will take time to come true. Even if we reach the point where autonomous driving technology is able to largely navigate America’s failing infrastructure, there will be scenarios where it just won’t work. Natural and man-made disasters will ensure this. We saw this week what happens when a major web hosting service has a problem. What if the servers responsible for monitoring your rolling nap basket perform a massive dump?
Human behavior is the weakest link in automobile safety. Yet automakers are training their semi-autonomous systems to behave more “organically”. Modern cars that could easily exceed the posted limit on 90% of US freeways automatically (and unnecessarily) slow down for smooth freeway bends for the sole reason that some customers think it “feels good.” We are told one line but sell another. It seems odd that efforts are being made to make cars drive more like they are controlled by humans if humans are the weak link to begin with.
The goal of automation may be to save lives, but its ulterior motive is to sell cars. We are fed on the fantasy of an interconnected world where cars are so good at doing automotive things that we have nothing to do but sit in awe of their abilities, and like we will have nothing to do with it. Another thing to do, we can skip our car rides tweeting how amazing all the features of our favorite brand are. It’s a marketer’s dream, not a driver’s utopia.
In the meantime, we’re stuffed with palliative technology that largely serves to further erode our already waning situational awareness. If the smartphone has taught us anything, it’s the rate at which we are becoming dependent on technology. Watch how quickly we have learned to forget things that we once considered critical information to have in an emergency. Most Americans under the age of 35 probably don’t know the phone numbers of their loved ones. Do you really think they have an incentive to learn the rules of the road if they are told their cars can do it for them?
This knowledge (along with the skills and reflexes perfected by applying this knowledge day to day) are most critical when the going goes wrong. By systematically dismantling the human component of the driving process, I truly believe we risk being literally bored to death.
I travel frequently. There are a lot of things that suck about flying, but it doesn’t matter how crappy your seat is, how intrusive your neighbor’s appendages are, how cold (or hot) the stale air is, or how bad the crying baby, there is always one thing worse than being forced to stay awake for a miserable plane trip, and that is being forced to stay awake during a miserable plane trip with Nothing else to do.
We are a culture that demands constant stimulation. Why then are we in such a rush to numb ourselves to everything that is happening around us on the road? What’s the real benefit of delegating anything that might need our attention to a half-baked electronic nanny that will only further isolate us from information that might be life or death critical?
You might not find it fun to drive in the strict sense, especially if you’re used to driving long distances in the US Midwest, but at least it gives you a process to engage with. It might not be exciting, but it engages our senses and keeps us occupied. Or at least it was.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that we are doomed to an inefficient, device dependent existence because we have moved away from crank starters and manual transmissions – I have never owned a vehicle. with an automatic transmission in my life and even I think that’s ridiculous – but there are some obvious differences in performance between those who are engaged in a task and those who are simply performing it.
That’s why I can support a system like GM’s Super Cruise (and similar offerings from other OEMs). Since he’s not busy pretending that he can actually do all the work better than a human being, his implementation may be more focused on improving the driving experience rather than attempting to automate it completely. You’ll feel less fatigue per mile driven, but you’ll still need to be careful enough to keep the system from shutting down. It is net positive.
And following that same logic a lower tech level, I personally advocate old-fashioned cruise control over the new adaptive setups pretty much any day of the week, because it forces you to be careful. You always know exactly how fast you’re going (provided your cruise control isn’t zero) and you don’t have to waste mental bandwidth or muscle endurance on minute throttle settings, but you can’t just log off completely or you ‘I wake up with a jersey barrier between my teeth.
People joked (and maybe still) that a spike bolted to the middle of the steering wheel would be a more effective safety device than any airbag. As absurd as it sounds, there is a nugget of truth. Driving is a responsibility. No matter how much you try to delegate, the responsibility ultimately ends with you. If it’s too much pressure, even technology can’t save you.