The Trouble with Self-Driving Cars: It’s the Drivers, Not the Cars

Angry driver shouting in his car

Picture yourself circling a crowded Market Basket parking lot. You see one empty spot ahead, but by the looks of it, there’s another car angling toward the same space. Your choices are simple: Politely take the high road and yield the vacancy to the other driver, or press on ahead, disregarding the feelings of your fellow motorist, and grab that parking spot while you still can.

Regardless of what they’d do in reality, I imagine most readers would profess their virtue while choosing the former. But what if you didn’t have to worry about insulting another driver? What if you only had to worry about offending an unemotional, soulless computer?

There are two undisputed truths surrounding autonomous cars today: They are coming, and we don’t know how they’re going to work. The appeal of a vehicle capable of managing rush-hour traffic, dropping the kids off at school, or driving you home after you’ve had one too many is simply too great to ignore. The question isn’t whether or not self-driving cars will start filling our roads, it’s how they’ll be implemented and how they’ll interact with us.

Last week, we reported on Mercedes-Benz’s decision that self-driving cars will be programmed to protect their occupants at the potential expense of pedestrians or other motorists. This extrapolation of the famous Trolley Problem, wherein someone (or something) must choose who dies, was inevitable, and while Mercedes made news by becoming the first automaker to take a public stand on the question, I’m less interested in understanding how autonomous cars will treat humans and more intrigued by how humans will treat autonomous cars.

At AutoConference LA, Mercedes-Benz CEO Dietmar Exler explained how neither the technology behind autonomous cars nor customer acceptance of the product was holding up progress, but instead it was the question of how other drivers would interact with cars that were not being driven by humans. As reported by the Los Angeles Times,

When someone tries to cut in line at a traffic merge, humans won’t let them in. But a driverless car will be programmed to stop when it sees an obstruction—like a line cutter. “They’ll look for the autonomous car and that’s where they’ll cut in,” he said.

The code being written to safely direct autonomous cars dictates that a car must cede the right-of-way to conflicting traffic. This opens up a wide window for human drivers to take advantage of robotic ones. Emotional, human drivers can cause all sorts of headaches on the highway, and as someone who drives primarily in Massachusetts (where we have a special name for our aggressive breed of drivers), I have to agree: Human drivers are a predictable roadblock to effective autonomous vehicles.

If an autonomous car tried to merge into your lane, would you let it?

-Matt Smith

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