A new study suggests that self-driving cars will be a boon to public safety. There are still a lot of things that the autocars cannot handle, however, and so it may be a while.

In the meantime, we’re likely looking at a future where cars take more and more off our hands and, piece by piece, do the driving for us. This could turn out to be a mixed bag, however, if we become too reliant on these vehicles too quickly. The fear is that risk compensation will cause more problems than the semi-automation will fix.

It’s something that makes a certain disconcerting sense to me. But it’s also something that’s not very new.

When I was young and she was alive, I used to get into arguments with my aunt on the subject of cruise control. She thought that cruise control was an absolutely horrible invention because it meant that drivers would pay less attention and therefore cause more accidents.

“What about automatic transmission?” I asked.

Completely different she explained, though she was never quite able to explain why automatic transmission made driving easier but cruise control made driving too easy. Why automatic transmission made it so that you could focus on your driving, while cruise control made it so that you wouldn’t. Maybe there is a good explanation, but I think a lot of it revolves around innovations that occur when you’re young enough to be interested in innovations.

Which is what I think about when I worry about drivers not paying sufficient attention to the road. I think cruise control is as awesome as my aunt thought automatic transmissions were, and I tend to chalk up my concern to automatic car distancing to her concerns about cruise control.

Then again, every innovation is different. And I do recall reading somewhere that Google actually had to step back on the automation because it’s drivers weren’t paying the attention that they needed to be taking. So maybe there’s something to it.

Category: Road

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12 Responses to The Dangers of Semi-Autocars

  1. fillyjonk says:

    Huh. I love cruise control (at least in situations of low traffic, so I don’t have to keep adjusting when I come up on that guy who’s going 20 mph below the speed limit, and the passing lane is full). I find I can devote *more* attention to the road and to watching out for potential hazards when I’m not worrying if I’m getting to be a leadfoot.

    Of course, in heavy traffic, cruise control is useless, at least around here – it speeds up and slows down and as I said there’s always “that guy” who is going too slow for the stream of traffic (and then a couple other guys who aggressively lane-shift to the point of cutting others off).

    I dunno. After watching (and laughing over) the compilation tape of “robot fails” from the last DARPA competition, I’m not sure driverless cars are ready for prime time.

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    The automatic transmission removes the need to focus on shifting, which means you can pay more attention to the road. CVTs are an order of magnitude better than that.

    Cruise control can have the same effect (less focus on speed, more on the road), but it is suggested that by requiring less attention to speed, a driver will let their mind wander overmuch. Which I suppose is possible for some drivers.

    • aaron david says:

      Manual transmissions provide greater control of the vehicle and once used to them, shifting for proper the road condition is truly automatic and done instinctively. An auto tranny is at best a compromise that cannot take future conditions into account. (And yes, my current truck is an auto and it looks like my next one will be too. But I seriously miss my Datsun Roadster.)

    • Michael Cain says:

      Cruise control is a god-send when driving across the Great Plains on the interstates.

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    My Subaru has a 5 speed automatic that has a pseudo-manual mode, so if road conditions are less than ideal, I can switch modes and regain control. Although I do miss the clutch of a manual.

    CVTs usually offer a manual mode that fixes the ratios when you need it.

    • trumwill says:

      When we got the Forester, the Outback had CVT but the Forester didn’t. I actually sort of wish I’d paid the extra thousand for the Outback. I feel like I’ve been paying for that $1000 ever since.

      (Otherwise, quite happy with the purchase. Except that people keep running into our vehicle. Don’t think that’s the car’s fault, though.)

    • Michael Cain says:

      My Honda has a similar fake manual mode with paddle shifters that gives the impression that I’m in control. It won’t let me stall the engine, automatically downshifting instead. It won’t let me get too close to the red line. What I really notice, though, is that the little Honda engine and transaxle is so quiet and vibration-free that none of the normal cues for shifting are there — I have to look at the tachometer.

      I have no proof that this actually happened, but my perception is that the Honda software adapted during the first month that I had it, “learning” some of my braking/acceleration pattern. There’s no question that after a month it was in what I thought was the proper gear coming out of a curve/corner much more often than it had been when I first got the car.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        Oh no, it learned your habits. My Subaru both do it. As a matter of fact, if my wife & I switch cars too often we have to reset the learning module because our driving styles are so different it gets confused.

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    stop painting targets on your cars.

  5. Jhanley says:

    There’s always a cottage industry in Chicken Littleism.

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