You Suck at Driving (And So Do I)

On July 1, one of Google’s self-driving cars was rear-ended. It’s the 11th back-end slam they’ve incurred on the open road, and this time there were some minor injuries to the passengers riding inside. Overall, the autonomous vehicles have been in 14 accidents, and not a single one was the fault of the Google-mobile. Each time, terrible human driving led to an unnecessary collision.

We know about these incidents because Google self-driving car project director, Chris Urmson, is openly talking and blogging about them. The whiplash-inducing collision did not have a police report filed, even though officers were at the scene, making it one of the likely millions of crashes that are more hidden from public awareness than ones that were officially filed. Based on all available information, reported and unreported crashes, in 2010, “there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.” Those are hard to wrap your brain around.

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but living in the Los Angeles area–one of the most car-saturated places in the world–I get genuinely worried when I see some of the people behind the wheel or about to be. Not just the drunks or the sleep-deprived; those are blatantly disqualifying for driving, and should be immediately reported. As worrying are the regular people who clearly have bodies and minds that are not fit for driving at any time, or are noticeably preoccupied.

There are some in their golden years–not all–whose cognition, hand-eye coordination, or general bodily strength and dynamism has diminished to the extent that they likely should not be on the road. Every so often crashes suggesting this as a cause become newsworthy. In February, a 92-year-old driver became panicked in his minivan in a parking lot and pinballed into 9 vehicles. It’s hard to understand how a focused, competent driver would do what he does in the surveillance video of the incident. Thankfully no one was hurt. Crashes like this make you wonder why all states do not require people to eventually retest on the actual driving portion and not just an eye or written exam. Only a few do.

Before this whole thing takes an ageist turn, let’s quickly note that the highest rates of reported crashes are among drivers 16- to 24-years-old. Just as in later years our bodies are less than their peak, in our teenage and early adult years they are still forming toward their prime–especially the faculties necessary for driving well. When we’re young, we make a lot of mistakes on the path to developing mature coordination, sensitivity to context and spatial awareness, and sound decision-making. When I was 15-years-old with my driving permit, I cleared the side view mirror clean off a parked car with the side of my vehicle while breezing down the street. Asking teenagers to command a vehicle is probably the most complex, demanding task they’ve ever encountered in their lives to that point. It’s undoubtedly compounded by the ubiquity of smartphones and the compelling urge to engage with them anytime they’re close at hand.

Which, of course, affects drivers of all ages. I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve seen on the road with one hand on the wheel and the other tapping and swiping away on their phone. They think vehicles grinding to a halt is an ideal opportunity to send or read a text, photograph, or another kind of message. And it often continues as the gridlock loosens and things are moving at regular speed again. Driving is an immensely involved task, and this kind of distraction is obviously dangerous, but most don’t appear to care. Several surveys suggest that the majority of drivers think they can smartphone and drive without any complications.

In fact, we all seem to be increasingly thinking of driving as more of a time suck when we could be doing other, “better” things. I’ve got that call to make; that text to reply to; that novel to finish; that album to listen to; that trumpet to play (Urmson’s team observed this actually happening). As Sheila Klauer notes in her book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, which Urmson cites, people “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat.”

Whether it’s the immaturity or decline of our bodies, distractions or substance-induced impediments, or just general human error, our frailty causes a lot of unnecessary collisions–a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths, property damage, and general heartache.

With roadways full of only self-driving cars, it all could be made obsolete.

The Google vehicles’ culpability-free streak is over nearly a million miles of driving. Urmson notes, “Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted.” They are free of the limitations and inherent vulnerabilities that human drivers have. Unless a car is hacked (certainly possible, but probably preventable) or goes rogue on the driver (quite improbable, but that Ford Anglia in Chamber of Secrets was pretty bonkers), there aren’t significant foreseeable negatives. Even if the vehicles are expensive when they’re first publicly available, with the security they would bring there is much to be saved: insurance costs, necessary emergency infrastructure, vehicle replacement, road repair, the productivity and priceless individuality of people protected from fatalities, and more.

And, intriguingly, with autonomous vehicles, people of all ages get to retain their autonomy and dignity. If you’re 16 and inexperienced–parents hesitant to give you the keys on a Saturday night–or not yet licensed, you could quickly meet up with friends on the other side of town in a self-driving car. If you’re 85 and know that your mind, vision, and strength aren’t what they used to be, you could still run errands of your own accord, ride to your child’s house for a weekend road trip, or go out dancing with your soulmate. If it’s your 40th birthday and you have bacchanalian inclinations, you can fulfill them. The only errors you might make on the ride home are throwing up in the cupholder, passing out in the backseat, or bringing home a one-night stand that you later regret. That’s worlds better than potential drunk driving fatalities. Everyone gets to be where they want when they want.

Isn’t that precisely what we’re all after in getting behind the wheel? Don’t we crave a license in our teens so we can finally be the master of our mobility? Don’t we clutch our license with aged knuckles because we can feel the independence slipping away? It’s difficult for us to be dependent on others to get around and at the same time realize the kind of dignity and freedom we crave. The promise of self-driving cars means we can all be safe, egalitarian travelers. We’d rather be doing other things en route, anyway.

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