Self-Driving Cars Face Psychological Speed Bumps

Posted on October 12, 2017

The technology to put autonomous cars on the road in a large scale is readily available today. However, technology is not the only thing that has to evolve in order to implement such new vehicles. Researchers Azim Shariff, Jean-Francois Boneefon, and Iyad Rahwan have examined the public’s mental roadblocks to adopting autonomous cars – one of which involves ethical dilemmas.

Even though autonomous vehicles will bring safety improvements, some collisions are just inevitable. Despite our (over)confidence in our own driving abilities and our desire to control life-or-death situations such as car crashes, human reflexes are slower than sensors and computers, which means that ultimately autonomous cars can brake earlier and steer more accurately than we can. Additionally, the manufacturers will have the advantage of thinking through ethical dilemmas well ahead of time, and programming the car accordingly. A reaction to a certain situation could therefore be carefully thought out by a team of people, instead of being based on a split-second decision of the driver.

Nonetheless, Shariff, Bonnefon, and Rahwan’s research shows that the general public is uncomfortable with the idea of a car figuring out who to harm and who to save, when a collision is unavoidable.

The researchers suggest two approaches to address these concerns: Highlighting the absolute benefits of autonomous vehicles, such as how many accidents they will avoid by replacing human-driven cars, thus saving lives overall; and redirecting attention to the benefits of technology as a way of harnessing people’s desire to signal virtue. Driving an autonomous car could stand as a symbol of one’s commitment to overall safety and efficiency, just like the Toyota Prius’ distinct shape works as a selling point – Prius cars stand out on the road and symbolize the owner’s commitment to the environment. The image of an autonomous car as one of reduced human error and accidents may not specifically address people’s concerns about cars being in control in crash scenarios, but could redirect attention to the benefits of the new technology.

While our roads and our customs for driving on them evolved over nearly a century, the standards and customs surrounding autonomous vehicles will likely develop on a compressed time scale as technology advances. Luckily, the authors point out, we have an opportunity to go about this transition deliberately.


Source material from Association for Psychological Science

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