Will self-driving cars make drivers less capable?

bob_60x60.JPGBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks


Car manufacturer BMW, following in the footsteps of Google, is testing self-driving cars that take the wheel out of the hands of the driver. The idea is to reduce traffic accidents and congestion, but will it make drivers less able to drive?


The fully automated cars use a wide array of cameras and other sensors to see other vehicles, pedestrians, stop lights, curbs and anything else a car encounters on the road. The sensors feed that data into a central computer that compares the information to a GPS map and navigates the car through traffic to its destination, completely on its own. That includes steering, accelerating and decelerating, matching speeds with other cars on the road, as well as responding to sudden changes, such as an emergency stop if a pedestrian steps off a curb.


So far, the test cars have driven autonomously for thousands of kilometers on the German autobahns, as well as on the streets of California, mostly without incident - although the Google cars have been involved in at least two accidents, each one involving other cars with drivers.


But once the bugs are worked out and laws are changed to allow the public to own self-driving cars, engineers foresee a future where drivers become passengers. Their self- driving cars will follow each other much more closely on the highway to reduce traffic tie ups and reduce accidents, because they can see the road better than the human eye and respond more quickly.


It sounds great, but what effect will this have on the skill level of car owners who have less and less experience actually driving their cars?  Will they be able to handle a vehicle when the system crashes and they have to take over the wheel at high speed?


The satellite navigation systems currently available in vehicles are wonderful tools for finding destinations, especially in cities you are visiting for the first time. But you may have experienced the phenomenon where you arrive at the destination, but you have no real idea of how you got there. You simply followed the step-by-step instructions without getting a sense of the area.


A map, on the other hand, shows you a more holistic view of the region and the relationship between where you are and your destination. You can see the route and map it in your mind, a skill humans are particularly good at. When you rely totally on the GPS, this navigational skill is reduced.


In other words, the GPS makes you stupid.


On the other hand, automatic navigation is a marvelous invention. Without it, airliners could not criss-cross the country without getting lost or running into each other. But even though aircraft are capable of making an entire flight on their own, including takeoff and landing, pilots still insist on manually handling the most critical parts of the flight - leaving the ground and touching down - both for safety and to keep their flying skills honed. 


The same was true on the space shuttle, which was flown entirely by computers until the final moments when an astronaut took over to guide the spacecraft to the runway manually.


The automobile was designed to be a personal form of transport, which means the driver has a responsibility to know how to control it. As automation creeps further into the territory of human skills, we can't allow those skills to be lost. Would you feel comfortable driving down the highway and being passed by a driver reading the morning newspaper?  (Actually, this already happens, unfortunately.)


If you want to travel at high speed in vehicles that run very close together, while enjoying the morning paper and a coffee, that technology already exists.  It's called a train. And it's much better for the environment.