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Posted on October 3rd, 2011 by
I currently own a couple late 80’s three-series BMWs. What I love about these cars is how responsive they are to my inputs. Steering, throttle, brake, the car does what I want it to do. With manual transmissions and ABS and cruise control removed, there is only one entity controlling the car, me. If I want to threshold brake through a corner, I can push the limits beyond what ABS would allow. If I want to kick the tail end of my car out, there is no traction control to override my throttle input.
What I have described above is a stark contrast to most modern day cars. It is becoming more and more common for vehicles to have automatic systems built in that take away control from the driver in attempt to increase safety and convenience. Traction/stability control, adaptive cruise control, collision warning systems with braking support: these features are all designed to alter the trajectory of the vehicle if the driver is not doing so on their own, or if they would like to take a break from the task at hand. For example, if an outside wheel is slipping, the car will remove power from that wheel so that it can regain traction. Or if adaptive cruise control is enabled, the car will speed up or slow down to match the velocity of surrounding traffic. If an obstacle in front of the vehicle is too close, the collision warning system will warn the driver, and even apply brake if they do not do so on their own.
These features all sound great in principle. That is, given adequate sensors and processing capacity, a machine should be able to react faster than a human. This, in turn, could prevent a collision that the human could not avoid on their own. However, there are potential dangers associated with an overly automated system.
First, drivers can become overly reliant on the technology, and shift their attention to other non-driving tasks. This is often the case with cruise control, where the driver no longer has to think about throttle input, and thus becomes less connected to the speed and momentum of their vehicle. This lack of attentiveness can cause the drivers to lose focus of their surroundings, increasing the likelihood of an accident.
Second, the system may engage when the driver does not wish it to, or when it is not safe to do so. Take the following example of a vehicle (Car A) with a brake-supported collision warning system. Car A is proceeding down the freeway at a constant speed when suddenly Car B changes lanes close in front of it. Though Car B has accelerated to match the speed of Car A, the collision warning system does not understand this. Because Car B is now “too close”, the system falsely predicts a collision and applies the brakes. This potentially causes a collision with the car behind, Car C, which is not expecting Car A to suddenly slam on its brakes.
Given how rapidly this technology is advancing, these automated systems will no doubt get better and better. After all, Google has a car that can drive itself entirely. But until all the various kinks are ironed out, I will continue driving my reliable old 80’s cars that do what they’re told.