As you know, I have a rosy–maybe rose colored–vision of the future. On the top of my “getting better” futuristic wish list is the self-driving car. It’s funny, but many people think that self-driving cars will make driving more, not less, dangerous. Why?
I love neuroscience, and finding, understanding (and, I hope) avoiding cognitive biases is a micro-hobby of mine. One of my “favorite” biases is the Illusion of Control. This is “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events.” (Wikipedia) One of the most common examples of the illusion of control is the fact that so many people feel safer driving than flying. Driving feels safer because one has control. However, if you’re flying in a commercial jet and the ailerons fail (exTREMely unlikely), you have no control. Buckle up and assume the position. This powerlessness makes people feel less safe.
However, we should be grateful that we have no control. Safety procedures for commercial aircraft have been so routinized, regulated and automated that in some years no one dies in commercial aviation crashes in the US. In 2012, 34,080 died in auto accidents (Wikipedia) in America. In that same year, there were no commercial airline crashes that caused fatalities in the US. According to the New York Times, “the death risk for passengers in the United States has been one in 45 million flights.”
So why not do for automobiles what the airlines have done to their jets? As you have probably experienced in your (or someone else’s) car, new safety gadgets keep coming with each new model year. Contrast that with previous decades. As a child my mom plopped me in the front passenger seat, and when she would brake suddenly, Mom put out her arm so that I wouldn’t do a face plant on the dashboard. I guess she could’ve made me buckle my seatbelt, but hardly anyone did that in the 1970s. Nowadays there are many systems and alarms that are standard, such as the rear-facing camera to make backing up safer, sensors for blind spots, anti-lock brakes, etc., etc., etc.
But the real jump in safety will come when we take our hand off the wheel and feet off the pedals. Humans make consistent and persistent perception and judgment errors. On Rock Creek Parkway, a particularly dangerous road in Washington, DC, I have had two accidents at one merge and three at another. (This clearly reflects on my poor driving skills, but it also reflects on human driving skills, too.) All have been fender benders and no one was hurt, but a machine wouldn’t have made the mistakes I made once, let alone five times. In every one of those crashes, I saw the car in front of me accelerate, so I checked my blind spot to make sure I could go, I accelerated, but unbeknownst to me, the car in front of me has decided to stop. Bang! My fault.
A recent CNN article explores some of the coming safety innovations, including cars that “learn” and communicate, external air bags, laser headlights, and self-parking and self-driving cars.
And when this all comes to pass, my insurance rates will plummet like the fatality rates. (Hopefully before my next accident.)