America has been toying around with the concept of self-driving cars for some time now but has yet to make a strong commitment one way or another. And while the limits of technology may very much be a large factor in limiting the speed of their development, I would pin a large portion of the slow adoption/progress on the media. It seems like every time a robot-controlled car so much as dents a window, it’s all over every news media site the world over.
Repeated media coverings of these events have resulted in a more negative public opinion on self-driving cars than there would be otherwise, even in situations where it was not the fault of the self-driven car; on August 31st, for example, an Apple self-driving car was being road tested when it was rear-ended while waiting at a busy intersection. Despite the collision being almost entirely at fault of the other vehicle, most headlines hid that fact. The reasoning is clear: People are more likely to react, and more likely to click if they think they’ll be reading about a self-driving car hitting someone, but this still results in negative stigmatization over self-driving vehicles.
And negative stigmatization in self-driving vehicles means Americans will spend longer times with semi-automated cars, which are actually much, much worse than their automated counterparts could ever hope to be. When I say semi-automated, I’m talking about vehicles such as the Tesla models, which incorporate an autonomous mode that highly encourages a human driver to stay on standby in case something goes awry. Simply put, Tesla manufacturers acknowledge that their systems are not yet ready to facilitate fully-automatic driving, and understand that the automation will get things wrong from time to time.
Not too much of a problem if people just pay attention, right? Right, but they won’t. They totally won’t. They’ll find themselves suffering from an effect known as Passive Fatigue, which can be incurred by operating a vehicle that requires drivers to watch for hazards but does not require them to frequently use the vehicle’s controls. This effect can greatly reduce driver awareness, and may even put them to sleep.
Long story short, slowing the advancement of self-driving cars by blowing up every automated crash into media headlines will result in people spending more time on these unreliable automation systems that aren’t meant to be treated as full-auto modes — but because people are people, they’ll do that anyway. If the world would stop flipping out over self-driving cars for a few years, maybe we can actually get somewhere… And I guarantee you that a real,fully-automated car would cause way fewer yearly accidents than most humans I know.