2025AD: Key factors in the acceptance of automated driving
All the facts might speak for driverless cars. But as soon as the human factor comes into play, things get a little more complicated.
We’ve analyzed the discussions that took place on 2025AD and its channels triggered by several opinion pieces published here (mainly Will humans still drive and Why Angela Merkel got it right). Now we’ve put together the key arguments that were brought forward in these discussions and would like to know your opinion on them.
One thing that struck us most: The posts rarely stuck to the specific issue at hand (should AD be mandatory?), rather, the participants used the opportunities to discuss the advent of new technologies in road traffic in general (should AD be introduced at all?). The dividing lines were striking: Overall, just as many discussion participants were in favor of AD as were against, only very few didn’t show a preference at all – and even those in favor pressed for clear limitations of the euphoria that seems to surround the introduction of AD these days.
After all, there seems to be a consensus among industry and lawmakers that a brave new world awaits us once cars get from A to B all by themselves: No more wasted time behind the wheel, staring at the brake lights of the car ahead of us in a traffic jam; no more wasted fuel (and thus polluted air) due to pointless cruising in search of a parking space or lack of proper directions; and no more accidents caused by someone having a drink too many, or a car repair job too few.
But analyzing the discussion threads on 2025AD shows that reservations about self-driving vehicles seem to be more numerous among the interested public than most professionals in the industry (or politicians eager to embrace the technology of tomorrow) would probably like them to be. In general, humans might be more hesitant than expected about taking themselves out of the picture as far as actually steering a vehicle is concerned.
We can all think about these arguments what we want – some may agree, some may disagree and some may see them as being easily proven or dismissed. Yet the fact is, these are the reservations that are out there. Not an exhaustive list by any means but certainly the ones that tend to come up over and over again. And unless we deal with them directly and use the learnings to inform the development of automated driving, the new technology will not be accepted.
So here are our findings. Read them, contemplate and share your thoughts on them with the community (the links below will jump to each respective section).
"Driving is fun!"
First of all, there is the most basic of all reasons why people like to do something – and why not: The emotional aspect. Driving is, simply put, fun! And it is an expression of self (The car! The make! The model! The engine power!) in style and (unfortunately, too often) speed.
By having cars maneuver themselves, at least some people seem to feel bereaved of an activity which is perceived to be fun and also a means of individual expression. Even though, this is often exactly what leads to miss-communication between different road users: Cyclists yelling at car drivers, car drivers cutting off pedestrians, pedestrians walking carelessly in the bike lane, etc..
“It won’t work: automated vehicles will first make the drivers forget how to drive but will then require emergency decisions!”
The second issue of concern is one known from the commercial aviation industry, where the automation level of aircrafts has continually increased over the past decades, leading to hands-off-situations for the pilots during most of their on-duty-time, while at the same time heavily relying on the very same pilots being able to take over and make snap decisions in an emergency situation.
In the case of self-driving cars, discussion participants on 2025AD worry that humans would lose their ability to make smart and potentially life-saving decisions (and to act upon them!), if the automated systems should fail at any point during the ride.
Additionally, in an ever-more interconnected world, the potential of a situation where humans have to take back control themselves seems very acute, given the recent “WannaCry”-attack on computer systems worldwide (with some of them actually crippling the transportation industry, e. g. the attack on passenger information systems of Deutsche Bahn in May 2017).
Even those generally in favor of AD admonish there to be an “Off-button”, so the driver can always regain control of the vehicle should she or he see fit. Some back this up with the observation that when in decades past, computer-driven technology was introduced, it was only ever as good as the engineer who programmed it – especially at the beginning. Over time though, it was honed and perfected by the input and the experience of the people actually using it. Others point out that human instinct can never be surpassed by a machine, which seems to be supported by the fact that even the en vogue “deep learning” technology of today still fails to comprehend what’s going on in complex visual scenes (“Who is chasing whom and why?”).
“Manual drivers will soon be seen as egoistic maniacs!”
A third question surrounds the issue of ethics, especially in a time of transition (which could last several decades, given the average life-span of 18 years for a modern vehicle). Once the majority of drivers use automated support systems, how will the general public treat those poor left-behinds who still cannot afford anything but to chauffeur themselves around (or might, in fact, do so for ethical/moral reasons or simply for their driving fun)?
Nobody can be forced to use a smartphone (even though modern life makes it hard for people not to), but could people be forced to not use something as essential as their car and instead be obliged to use something that actually saves lives (or, at least, doesn’t endanger them as much)? And if the answer is yes, would that be compatible with the general philosophy of law of most modern western democracies?
“There is a conspiracy trying to shove automated driving down our throat.”
Last but not least, discussion participants on 2025AD raised the issue of distrust towards the authorities, worrying that they might interfere with speed limits or other regulatory issues surrounding individual traffic, simply in order to create the impression of increased safety on roads utilized by driverless cars. This worry gets nourished by the fear that insurance premiums might sky-rocket for manually driven cars, based on that very impression of increased safety.
In general, there seems to be a sense of “governmental meddling with individuality” when it comes to AD. This, by the way, seems to be a particular concern for Germans, who consider their supposedly speed-limit-free Autobahn to be a last standing bastion of personal freedom. This feeling is fueled in addition by the fear of what the data collected by interconnected vehicles might reveal about their passengers – and who could (secretly) make use of that data for commercial or even criminal purposes.
Interesting in all of this is that the concerns surrounding the advent of AD were not only put forth by refuseniks who might be opposed to anything that’s new and requires thinking out of the box, but even by people who in their comments outed themselves to be generally pro-AD. Therefore, we would like to open up the discussion along the lines of the following questions, and invite you to participate with your insights and ideas:
- Do you share the concerns raised and think they’re realistic or do they just represent the fear of the new and unknown? And if so, what are your counter-arguments?
- In either case, what should be done to address those issues? And by whom?
- Specifically, what could 2025AD, as a forum about automated driving, contribute to further the discussion?
- Are there lessons to be learned from the advent of similar new technologies over the past decades (internet, smartphone, etc.) and if yes, how could the introduction of AD profit from that?