The pitch is not the reason the above Jean-Claude Van Damme commercial for Volvo trucks went viral, but let’s consider the pitch.
“This test was set up to demonstrate the stability and precision of Volvo Dynamic Steering,” says the screen at the commercial’s end, after we’ve been thoroughly awed. And the R&D gang at Volvo intends to keep awing us.
The lead article in the current New Yorker describes the pretty astonishing progress that’s being made in creating a car that drives itself. Google’s leading the way, but a lot of car manufacturers are working at it, making incremental progress and adding each advance to their latest models.
Volvo, for example.
The New Yorker‘s Burkhard Bilger tells us:
Since the seventies, it has kept a full-time forensics team on call at its Swedish headquarters, in Gothenburg. Whenever a Volvo gets into an accident within a sixty-mile radius, the team races to the scene with local police to assess the wreckage and injuries. Four decades of such research have given Volvo engineers a visceral sense of all that can go wrong in a car, and a database of more than forty thousand accidents to draw on for their designs. As a result, the chances of getting hurt in a Volvo have dropped from more than ten per cent to less than three per cent over the life of a car. The company says this is just a start. “Our vision is that no one is killed or injured in a Volvo by 2020,” it declared three years ago. “Ultimately, that means designing cars that do not crash.”
Most accidents are caused by what Volvo calls the four D’s: distraction, drowsiness, drunkenness, and driver error. The company’s newest safety systems try to address each of these. To keep the driver alert, they use cameras, lasers, and radar to monitor the car’s progress. If the car crosses a lane line without a signal from the blinker, a chime sounds. If a pattern emerges, the dashboard flashes a steaming coffee cup and the words “Time for a break.” To instill better habits, the car rates the driver’s attentiveness as it goes, with bars like those on a cell phone. (Mercedes goes a step further: its advanced cruise control won’t work unless at least one of the driver’s hands is on the wheel.) In Europe, some Volvos even come with Breathalyzer systems, to discourage drunken driving. When all else fails, the cars take preëmptive action: tightening the seat belts, charging the brakes for maximum traction, and, at the last moment, stopping the car.
The problem with human beings, Bilger observes, is that they make “terrible drivers. . . . Of the ten million accidents that Americans are in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault.”
The problem with designing cars that don’t need drivers, he goes on to tell us, is that human beings, for all their flaws, “aren’t easy to improve upon. For every accident they cause, they avoid a thousand others. They can weave through tight traffic and anticipate danger, gauge distance, direction, pace, and momentum.” A Google spokesman told him Americans drive nearly three trillion miles a year. “It’s no wonder that we have thirty-two thousand fatalities along the way, he said. It’s a wonder the number is so low.”
Teaching cars to drive themselves means teaching them to share the road with human drivers. This means teaching them to recognize and respond to the cues human drivers give each other. An example Bilger offers is the behavior of drivers at four-way stops. Drivers don’t just sit passively behind the white line waiting for their turn to come. As each car crosses through the intersection another driver nudges forward to declare it’s his turn next, and unless cars run by sensors and computers know how to recognize and respond to the nudging—and nudge right back—they’ll sit at those four-way stops forever.
Of course, once human drivers are eliminated, the computer-driven cars can observe their own protocols. They won’t have to understand how humans drive because humans won’t be driving.
And when humans are no longer driving a complex human skill will atrophy—a skill that for decades has marked the transition from childhood to maturity. We see it happening already in the air. An article in Thursday’s Tribune tells us that according to a new report, “airline pilots have lost flying skills as automation takes over mundane tasks and may be startled when systems don’t behave as expected, both of which have contributed to crashes. . . . Pilots accustomed to having autopilots and other devices to keep a plane on course and at the correct speed have allowed basic manual skills to erode.”
So this is a price we’ll pay when self-driving cars take over the marketplace. I wonder if it’ll be the only price.
Americans a hundred years ago could not have imagined that so many people would one day drive so many cars so fast in such close quarters and cause so little mayhem. There are rules, and almost without exception everyone obeys them—anarchists, libertarians, socialists, everybody. On the road we deal constantly with people who mean nothing to us, whose names we do not know and whose faces we do not see and whose values and beliefs might, for all we know, be antithetical to our own. It makes no difference. The spirit on the road, if nowhere else in our lives, is that we’re all in this together. I think of the automobile as the most civilizing tool ever invented.
But that’s because we drive those three trillion miles and want to survive the experience. When technology takes the steering wheel out of our hands and guarantees our survival—well, we’ll have one less reason to think of anyone but ourselves.