Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rachel Metz

A View from Rachel Metz

Digital Summit: How About a Sort-of-Autonomous Car?

I want a self-driving car, but it needs different levels of independence depending on the situation.

  • June 10, 2014

There are good drivers out there–my dad, for instance, who spent years driving through awful, snowy weather in upstate New York–but most of us aren’t as good as we think we are behind the wheel. In theory, driverless cars like the ones Google is testing provide a potential solution: turn control over to a computer, and we humans can sit back and do the things we love (eating, shaving, checking e-mail, playing the trumpet, etc.) but can’t do safely while controlling a heavy, fast-moving metal box on wheels.

I’m not so sure that’s the answer. Beyond all the technological issues that still need to be worked out for automated cars to come to market—and the psychological hurdles we’ll need to clear to entrust our lives to the vehicles around us and the computer controlling our own—I wonder if total automation is really what we need.

During a panel discussion about connected cars at MIT Technology Review’s Digital Summit on Tuesday in San Francisco, an audience member posed an interesting question: Might cars of the future have different levels of autonomy for zooming around town and zipping along the freeway?

Sven Beiker, executive director at the Center for Automative Research at Stanford University and a speaker on the panel, thinks so. “When people ask when we will have the automated car, the more accurate question is where will we have the automated car,” he said.

I agree. Driving around San Francisco, with its predictably unpredictable drivers, I like having full control of my tiny Scion Xa. I’m hopeful that computers can eventually do a better job than I at anticipating what other drivers will do, but unless every single person around me literally buys into the automated car market–paying for self-driving vehicles that exchange all kinds of data over a blazingly fast, reliable wireless network–I anticipate that city driving will remain largely human-controlled.

On the freeway, though, it’s another story. Drivers are going much faster, yes, but making more predictable maneuvers on the road. You don’t see that many left turns or U-turns on 101. An autonomous car would have an easier time with this kind of environment, since there would probably be fewer situations where it needs the kind of intuition and anticipation that humans excel at. This is why automated lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, and other automation features are emerging first for highway driving. If they keep progressing, it would be incredible to fly down the highway while my car takes me to a pre-programmed destination. I’d probably be left with more uninterrupted time for all that e-mail checking and eating than I would if I gave the car the reins on those unpredictable city streets.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.