We recommend maintaining a steady pace, and keeping a clear eye on the road ahead to see where this exciting journey will takes us. Why this cautious course of action? Because the jury is still out on many of the claimed benefits. Let’s consider two of the presumed advantages of self-driving vehicles over conventional vehicles: improved road safety, and more efficient use of the time spent riding in a vehicle.
Improved safety is the holy grail for self-driving proponents. But it is not a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than experienced, middle-aged drivers—the group with the best safety record historically. One of the likely reasons for these drivers’ excellent safety record is their predictive knowledge about the likely intentions of other road users. This predictive knowledge was acquired through years of driving experience.
Because it is not clear how or whether all predictive knowledge gained through experience could exhaustively be programmed into a computer (or even quantified), it is not clear whether computational speed, constant vigilance, and lack of distractibility of self-driving vehicles would trump the predictive experience of middle-aged drivers.
Furthermore, during the several-decade-long transition period during which conventional and self-driving vehicles would have to share the road, safety might actually worsen. This is the case because drivers of conventional vehicles would have certain expectations about the likely actions of other vehicles (depending on factors such as the location of the interaction, the type of the other vehicle, and the age and gender of the driver of the other vehicle). Given that all vehicles may not be programmed the same way, drivers might not know what to expect from a self-driving vehicle from one manufacturer versus another.
In many current situations, interacting drivers of conventional vehicles make eye contact and proceed according to the feedback received from other drivers. Such feedback would be absent in interactions with self-driving vehicles.
Another claimed advantage is increased efficiency and productivity in self-driving vehicles. But this advantage might turn out to be elusive for many current drivers. The reason is that many activities that people would like to do while riding in self-driving vehicles—such as working on a laptop, watching movies, or playing video games—are known to increase the frequency and severity of motion sickness.
So do not accelerate or brake. Instead, set your cruise control, but keep an open (yet critical) mind about new evidence that will emerge in the years to come.
Sivak and Schoettle are researchers with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and authors of the reports “Road Safety with Self-Driving Vehicles” and “Motion Sickness in Self-Driving Vehicles.”
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