Are Self-Driving Cars Too Rational?

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD


That’s not a rhetorical question

In one sense, this was inevitable – the idea that we’re not the most intelligent species on this planet unnerves us. But it’s more than that – the fact that A.I. is so coldly logical dregs up fears of a robot apocalypse and our own irrelevance. So when we put A.I. in the driver’s seat, there was bound to be a major disconnect between safety and callous rationality.  

What do I mean by callous rationality? PC World discussed a test case where a Waymo self-driving car detected a potential collision and rather than slam on the brakes – the natural human response – it calculated the time and distance needed to avoid an accident and slowed down accordingly (but didn’t stop).

The Waymo vehicle detected a car that ran a red light from the right side of an intersection. Consequently, the car’s A.I. reacted far quicker than humans possibly could. But the greatest boon of autonomous vehicles – not prone to distractions – worked against it in this case. It avoided the accident, but the human occupants were likely terrified. Our first instinct is to slam on the brakes, and if possible, come to a complete stop.

Not so when the driver has no emotions (specifically, fear).

Meanwhile, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is trying to perfect algorithms for controlling lane changes. Basically, it wants to teach self-driving cars to switch lanes more like we do. Part of this speaks to the A.I.’s limitations – self-driving cars aren’t quite ready for nationwide deployment.

But a self-driving car would likely treat lane changes like everything else – finding the optimal route and executing the maneuver as efficiently as possible. But not as smoothly as possible. We subconsciously factor our own comfort into every vehicular action, allowing a bit more time and space than is necessary. It’s why aggressive lane changes frighten us.

Granted, offensive driving can cause accidents. But if every car acted that way, the only result is less traffic and quicker, more efficient routes.

But not more comfortable routes. Not yet, anyway.

Turns out Waymo has a patent application in the works for an elaborate system to prevent motion sickness in its vehicles – because the fastest route isn’t always the smoothest one. (The commercial airline industry lives by this principle.)

A lot of people – myself included – get more nauseous as a passenger. And we’re all passengers in self-driving cars.

Under Waymo’s system, sensitive passengers would be encouraged not to look down or read during the trip, and the car would choose gentler routes for more squeamish occupants.

It better, because self-driving cars will be here whether we like it or not. Ending distracted driving is a fair trade for all the motion sickness – or discomfort – in the world.