My friend Adam Waytz has a fascinating piece at Slate about the rise of self-driving cars. He thinks the issue is whether drivers will be willing to give up control:

This conflict is distinct from two more common technology-related scares: that technology is diminishing our basic intelligence and social skills; and that humans will become enslaved by robot overlords. The first is rooted in a romanticized nostalgia for simplicity. This fear, which Nicholas Carr expressed in both a 2008 Atlantic article and the recent book The Shallows, forgets that previous technological advances such as the telephone or printing press did not somehow set Homo sapiens back several evolutionary steps. The second is rooted in science fiction and represents more of an egotistical, anthropocentric concern about humans' place atop the hierarchy of agents. Neither of these concerns is as legitimate a problem as the possibility that autonomous technology might simply piss people off.

I think he's right to focus on control. I'm reminded here of Tom Vanderbilt's wonderful book Traffic, which is-- how do I put this-- a book that I thought I would simply read for information, but which has lingered in my mind for years because its arguments are provocative. One of the themes of the book is that although driving may seem like a simple activity it's actually an extremely complex endeavour that harnesses tremendous cognitive capacity and plays on deep-seated emotions. A driver is filtering hundreds of pieces of information a minute, making snap decisions about potentially life-altering maneuvers, and grappling with inchoate subconscious responses (for example, because drivers tend to identify themselves with their cars, the submissive position of driving--you're typically following someone else--makes us angry).

Having read the book, I take driving much more seriously as an activity that reflects our abilities but also helps to create them. It's while driving, for example, that we log thousands of hours of practice in making important executive decisions without second-guessing ourselves. I don't know if this has been studied, but I would guess that people in positions of authority are disproportionately likely to consider themselves good drivers--and if they're right, the causal link might go in either direction. If that's the case, then the ramifications of widespread adoption of autonomous cars could be serious. It does seem that people are willing to accept certain abrogations of responsibility while driving (although I occasionally take exception to my GPS's tone), but if we outsource all of that reasoning, might we mildly erode our capacity to be the deciders?

On a related note, the BBC has an article questioning whether Americans will embrace roundabouts. Dan Neil, the motoring correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is quoted: "


07/08/2011 06:42

Robin Hanson at George Mason posts about it from time-to-time.

For myself, I think we will be back to driving little electric scooters eventually, and will be too busy worrying about those changes to worry about making them self-driving.


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