Bring on the (autonomous driving) machines

On July 18, Reid Hoffman published an article extolling the “asphalt utopia” that autonomous cars can bring.  I won’t go quite that far, but it did put words to some thoughts I’d been chewing on.

Living and driving in the San Francisco area, day in and day out I see drivers looking up and down from their phones, even as they sail blithely through crowded intersections in cars that could easily crush an unseen pedestrian.  The statistics on this are pretty clear: in 2011, 23% of US car accidents involved texting. That’s 1.3 million crashes. More teens in the US die from texting and driving than from drunk driving. And drunk driving hasn’t gone away either.

The auto industry spends a lot of time on HMI and how much information consumers can absorb while driving. The reality, though, is that a different screen is absorbing driver attention and we as a people don’t seem to have the willpower to prioritize looking at the road.

Lyft and Uber drivers often use smartphone crades or mounts. Are these safer than looking down at your lap?  Probably, but I can’t find data to support either case, but such mounts are illegal in, count ’em, 28 states.  If nothing else, one can interpret that they’re not an accepted substitute.   Then we get into Navdy and other heads up displays.  I’m intrigued, but also wonder about the effects of focusing on the near-field (windshield distance, not road distance), and, perhaps, a lulling of driver reflexes.

The other day, I sat with my family eating ice cream on a crowded commercial street in our neighborhood. There was a short (on the length axis) parking spot in front of us. It was a spot requiring jedi skills. As we sat, not one but two cars tried to shoehorn their way in, dinged the adjacent car at the rear end of the parking spot, then pulled away. Through no fault of her own, the owner of the rear car had sustained not one but two dings from drivers of limited parking skills. (Another reason to mandate rear-view cameras!)    And no, they didn’t leave notes behind saying sorry.  It was maddening to watch.   (The photo below is purely illustrative, and not of the actual scene.)

At this point, it seems clear that we as human drivers don’t have the willpower to focus on the road, nor the parking skills to spare our parking brethren.  Autonomous cars seem like a very, very logical evolutionary upgrade that will do a big service to the broader commons. Bring on the machines.