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We are quickly coming to a point in time when vehicles will be driven by computers in addition to humans. Once this point comes and takes hold, it seems the vehicles that are driven by humans will be the biggest safety risk on the road.
As many are aware, Google has been testing self-driving vehicles for six years and counting. The vehicles have driven about 1.9 million miles since they hit the road and have not caused any collisions. Of the 14 collisions that they were involved in, 11 were caused by human drivers rear ending the robot vehicles. Although, I am not sure that you would get that impression if you happen to merely skim the tech news headlines.
Every time that I hear about one of Google’s vehicles being involved in an accident, before reading the article, I am tempted to think that Google’s vehicle must have caused the accident. For what other reason would the involvement of a self-driving vehicle warrant a mention in the headline?
The following are examples of headlines related to the most recent such accident: “Google Self-Driving Car Involved in First Injury Accident” - ABC News. “Google self-driving car has 1st accident causing injuries” - CBC News. “Google Sees First Injury Accident for Self-Driving Cars” - TIME. “Injuries in Google self-driving car accident” - CNN Money.
If the self-driving capability is not an element in the accident, as has been the case in all incidences with these vehicles, I am having trouble coming up with a reason for them to be part of the story at all. It nearly always seems that once I get past the headline, the story is much more of a couple sentences in the weekly accident report of the local newspaper. Something like: “Rear end accident on 12th & Maple. Minor injuries.” That’s the whole story.
So why do we add in the part about the self-driving vehicle getting hit and expand it to a full article? And why do we often have a vaguely suggestive headline about Google to go with it? My suspicion is clickbait. If there is a way to squeeze an element of fear into a headline, people are more likely to click. New technology, as with any change, is scary. Handing over control of our transportation to a machine that has been proving itself to do a better job than humans is degrading. Many humans want to think they are superior to the machines. They want to believe that the machines will fail. They do not see the machines as an extension of ourselves, but a scary other to fear and conquer.
This fear is only human. These machines, while built by humans who are specialists in building and programming machines, are meant to be used by humans who do not understand them. There is a big divide here and the only way it will be overcome is through time. Just as historically with any new technology, time will bring comfort. People will start to see the convenience and benefit over their fears. They will start to understand it better and trust it more. In fact, as baiting as these headlines may be, those who do actually read the article are going to keep seeing this new era of self-driving vehicles to be safer.
I am not saying that self-driving vehicles are perfect and the day will not come when a self-driving vehicle will be the cause of an accident. I expect that it will. To some, I am sure, that will be all that it takes to dismiss those vehicles entirely. It is my hope, however, that the majority will see some of the major benefits to be gained from these vehicles. It is for those reasons that I am excited. You can read more about that in the second part of my musings on this topic tomorrow. (Read Part 2 here)
Kirk is still excited about the New Horizons data. His excitement has led him to be the point person on SeedSing science and technology insights. Follow him on twitter @KirkAug