Accepting Imperfect Self-Driving Cars

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Self-driving cars hold incredible potential. They will provide freedom to those who can’t otherwise drive due to physical limitations. They will eventually give us back our time by letting us relax, read, or snooze during our commutes. Most importantly, they will save lives by eliminating driver error. That does not mean they will be perfect, so the public needs to get used to the idea that self-driving cars will crash.

The leap from technologies like lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking to fully autonomous cars that are perfect is huge. In fact, it’s one that might not ever happen. Perfection isn’t easy.

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The idea of putting an imperfect self-driving car on the road sounds horrifying, but if you take a step back from the panic button it makes sense. First, take a look at where things stand without these cars on our roads. Traffic fatalities are at their highest since 2007 with 37,461 people killed on U.S. roads last year.

Self-driving cars aren’t going to take that number down to zero overnight, but they could make it significantly lower. Even if they aren’t perfect and are still involved in accidents and maybe even cause accidents, what if the overall result is fewer traffic deaths? That would be a good thing and it’s an idea the public needs to accept.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Rand’s Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty took a look at the problem of public acceptance of self-driving cars. If self-driving cars reduce the overall number of deaths on our roads, then they shouldn’t be held back, but the public reaction to crashes could backfire on the technology.

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The driver of a semiautonomous Tesla was killed when the technology didn’t properly recognize another vehicle. The public was not happy. In fact, it’d be fair to say everyone completely freaked out. No one wants their car driving them into the side of a tractor trailer or into a tree. It’s a horrifying thought, but take a look at reality.

We humans manage to do a pretty good job of driving into things and killing ourselves by accident. This type of thing already happens, just at our own hands. Putting self-driving cars in the mix simply shifts the blame to the car with the benefit of reducing fatalities.

Self-driving cars that don’t require a human at the wheel are still a ways off, but they are coming. Rather than panicking about the chance that one could cause an accident, the public should be looking at their overall potential to reduce accidents.

Even as imperfect technology, self-driving cars stand to do a better job than we do.

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Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin