Zombie Drivers – Say What?: NMA E-Newsletter #382

We dedicated the Spring 2016 issue of Driving Freedoms to the exploration of various aspects of the technological march toward driverless, interconnected vehicles. There are some distinct safety benefits to be realized through automation and connectivity – intersection movement assist for instance – but there are also very real concerns.

There are five classifications of automated driving:

Level 0

The human driver is in complete control of the vehicle at all times (in theory anyway).

Level 1

Some vehicle controls are automated. Automated braking is one such feature whereby if an imminent collision is sensed, brakes are applied without intervention by the driver.

Level 2

Multiple automated systems are in operation at the same time but a driver sits at the controls, poised to take command in an instant.

Level 3

The car drives autonomously in certain conditions. Its operating system senses when those conditions do or don’t exist and in the latter case, provides (in theory again) sufficient warning to the driver to take control.

Level 4

Read a book, sip a cocktail, or text to your heart’s desire because at this level, the vehicle is fully autonomous in operation. All functions are computerized with no expectation that the driver would need to assume control at any time during a trip.

While some believe that Level 4 automation is not too far around the corner, we think Level 2 and Level 3 technologies will be with us for the next generation or two of drivers, an era when computerized and human-driven vehicles will interact on a regular basis. That could actually create more unpredictability on the road, which is not usually a recipe for improved safety.

A member wrote to us after reading the NMA treatment of the subject:

I think the most dangerous part of driverless cars is the generations of “zombie drivers” it will create. Think about the sales person at the store who struggles to calculate the change from a $10.00 bill without the cash register or a calculator doing it for them. Driverless cars will create millions of incompetent drivers who become totally dependent on technology. Steering wheels and brake pedals will be pointless. 

Driving skills are learned from hands on the wheel daily driving under diverse weather and traffic conditions. Someone who relies upon a driverless feature of their vehicle 90% of the time will not acquire these skills in a proficient enough way for them to become instinctual and allow them to take control of the vehicle to avoid an impending crash situation. 

There is no substitute for human skill and training. Even drones, the epitome of driverless technology that have replaced fighter jets in many military instances, still need a hands on, eyes on, brain on, human controller back at base. 

The advancement of autonomous vehicle design will continue.  The safety benefits cannot be ignored but, by the same token, security/privacy issues and legal protections for man vs. machine conflicts must be addressed.

There is a broad spectrum of issues related to autonomous driving; just a few have been touched upon here.  We are curious about your thoughts – pro, con, or mixed – about the development and introduction of driverless vehicles.  Help us gauge the sentiment of the driving public by dropping us a line at nma@motorists.org.  We’ll share feedback in a future e-newsletter.

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