Driverless Cars And Bodiless Brains

The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of an Uber driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver's seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn't seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn't brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.

The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.

Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.

But the real story is "robot kills human." Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.

It makes sense to me that a world of exclusively driverless cars with a limited but known repertoire of moves might indeed be safer than our current world of human drivers. But trying to anticipate all the permutations of human behavior in the control systems for driverless car systems seems like a fool's errand. I'm skeptical that the broad public will readily accept a mixed human/robot system of drivers on the roads. You can be courteous or rude to other drivers on the road or to pedestrians on the curb. But how can you make your intentions known to a robot? How could a pedestrian communicate with a robot car in the way that approaches the simplicity of a nod or a wave to acknowledge the courteous offer from a driver to let the pedestrian cross the street?

The idea that we can capture the complexities of human cognition, decision-making and even personality well enough to mimic them finds gruesome company in another idea that made the news recently: a startup firm that offers to preserve your brain in a chemical solution in the hope that the brain's content can be uploaded into some future advanced technological matrix where you can live again.

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Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular ...

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Dick Kaplan 2 years ago Member's comment

"The belief that machines will someday be "smart like humans" is based on one imperfect metaphor on top of another."

You know, there was a time when it was thought a computer could never beat a grand master at chess. Yet it was 22 years ago this month, when reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost a game of chess to a computer. 22 years! In time they'll be better drivers. But at this article shows, that day is not today. Of course there is no proof a human driver would have faired any better.

Bill Johnson 2 years ago Member's comment

Gary Anderson, you would probably like this article. It does a good job highlighting some of the risks of self driving cars. #uber

Susan Miller 2 years ago Member's comment

I am far from sold on driverless cars. I think we'll get there eventually but I doubt I'll be comfortable giving up control in my lifetime. However, I think this article is not fair in this instance. Here's a direct quote about the circumstances of the accident from the article you linked to:

"It was a place one would expect to find deserted on a Sunday night, and not even the kind of environment that normally attracts homeless people. Nevertheless, Elaine Herzberg was there and 'she came from the shadows right into the roadway,...'

It sounds to me that she likely would have been struck regardless of who was driving. Driverless cars are theoretically safer because they avoid human error. But in this case, the accident sounds unavoidable.

Gary Anderson 2 years ago Contributor's comment

I don't see driverless cars navigating a freeway or being safe around children, ever.

Ayelet Wolf 2 years ago Member's comment

I agree. Yes the driver was looking down immediately before impact, but how many of us have glanced down at the radio or gps on a deserted stretch of road.