Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Self-driving cars

Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot recently, for example here.

Two things seem clear to me about self-driving cars. First, it's an exciting new technology which at some stage in the future will be a massive game-changer in the way we travel. Second, it's not yet ready for prime time.

I wouldn't like to make predictions about when we will all be travelling around in self-driving cars and laughing at the days when we actually had to do such a menial task as steering a vehicle ourselves, but one thought has recently occurred to me about the barriers that have to be overcome before that day comes.

I strongly suspect that the main barrier to widespread adoption of self-driving cars will not be technological, but sociological. It is extremely likely that self-driving cars will be considerably safer than existing cars driven by fallible humans, once the technology is sufficiently mature. However, I also think it is likely that society will be very slow to accept that fact.

Here's the problem.

If self-driving cars are safer than existing cars, it will largely go unnoticed. If a self-driving car makes a journey and no-one is killed, then it is not newsworthy.

However, if a self-driving car is involved in a crash, it will be newsworthy. Sooner or later, it is inevitable that a self-driving car will be involved in a fatal crash. When it happens, it will be all over the front pages. It may not even be the fault of the self-driving car, but that will not matter. I suspect that the headlines will all be about how dangerous self-driving cars are, and many people will believe it. The availability heuristic is very powerful.

No doubt there will then be the inevitable cry that "something must be done".

I predict that this will slow the widespread acceptance of self-driving cars. It won't matter how much safer than existing cars they are: stories of fatal accidents, however rare, in which real people get killed, are going to play far more strongly in the public discourse than any statistics about how much safer they are ever can.

So yes, in the future, I'm sure we'll all be travelling in self-driving cars, but I think progress to that point may be rather slow, and not because of technological barriers.

And talking of how we will all travel in the future, where's my jet pack? Come on, scientists, I think you've been slacking!

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