Monday was the first day of the AAIS Main Event. The focus was about a focus on the future and all of the speakers that we heard talked about the future of insurance. We heard from folks at Insuretech companies and from a tech entrepreneur. One of the topics that got a lot of time today was autonomous vehicles.
For those who aren’t aware (and if you’re not aware, why not?), autonomous vehicles are vehicles that have the ability to drive themselves. Currently, different companies are testing vehicles with differing levels of autonomy. At present, these vehicles will always have a human backup pilot that can take control at any time. As the recent tragic accident in Arizona proves, we are in a difficult point in the progression of autonomous vehicles.
We are at a place where the vehicles are starting to act in the ways that they have been programmed to act, which is a good thing. They obey the laws. They obey the travel rules. They act predictably most of the time. There are times when the sensors can be fooled and when things can go wrong.
The problem right now is that they have such a good safety record (recent events notwithstanding) that people are getting comfortable with them. When people get comfortable, we get complacent. When we get complacent, accidents happen. It happens to human drivers and it happens to the humans who are the backup drivers in the cars.
This leads my thoughts into what I see as the most dangerous place in the future history of autonomous vehicles. It’s not today. Today, the eyes are all on the field. Everyone is paying attention in part because it’s so new and in part because of the recent accident where a pedestrian was hit and killed. Today, it’s under control. I’m not even worried so much about the day when the vast majority of vehicles are driving themselves (which is likely, sorry to tell you that).
I’m concerned about the middle. There will be a day when the autonomous vehicles will start to number in the 20-60% of the vehicles on the road. I imagine that the large cargo fleets will be the first to adopt self-driving technology for several reasons. Not the least important being that a computer doesn’t need to take mandatory rest breaks. I imagine then that it’ll be the mass transit companies that will adopt self-driving technology. Again, a computer is more likely to be on time and is more connected to the vehicle to let someone know that it needs maintenance. Here’s what’s wrong with the middle.
People won’t want to give up their cars.
Here’s the simple truth that some tech futurists just don’t seem to understand. We love our cars. I have a friend who built a six-car garage just so that he had a space to keep his cars and work on them. I have seen him rebuild a 1940’s era car back to original specifications (except for the air conditioner that he retrofitted, but there’s that).
There are classic car shows all over the place. These cars were all built before computers were installed in cars. People love to look at different cars. We all drive our daily car, whether it’s the minivan that you felt like you had to buy to become a real adult (sorry, minivaners), or the prestige sedan that you bought to impress the neighbors (that you don’t like or that moved out the next month). Either way, we all go to the car show to see what other people get to drive. It might be that you want to see some beautiful exotic cars or that you want to see some of the classic cars that remind you of the car that you loved in your youth. No matter what it is, there are a lot of people who just don’t want to give up their cars.
People won’t want to give up control.
Let’s face it. Most people are control freaks. We don’t like to admit it but let’s look at the truth. If your spouse drives the way you do, you react with shock and fear. No one drives as well as you do. You don’t let anyone drive your car. You don’t even like to ride with anyone else. We like to feel like we’re in control.
The source of most people’s fear of flying doesn’t come necessarily from the altitude or anything. It’s a lack of control. They are riding in the back of a large vehicle that they don’t have control over. They can’t even get into the cockpit these days like they used to. Once the cars start driving themselves, we won’t be able to control them. We will be passengers in these things that we used to control. That makes us afraid and maybe a little mad.
People will need to learn how to interact with self-driving vehicles.
There is a learning curve to deal with. It’ll be like those days when we were first learning to drive. Do you remember the first time you had to drive in rush hour traffic in a city, like Atlanta, Jacksonville, or NYC? I do. I also remember the last time I drove in rush hour traffic. I’ve learned a lot since that first time and I still have to remember to break early and watch for people changing lanes four at a time to get to the exit that they almost missed.
Now that many of us are used to dealing with other people and expecting other people to deal with us, we are going to have to learn what it’s like when vehicles drive according to the rules all the time. There aren’t many people like that and we don’t know how to deal with it. I was driving in town the other day. I was at a green left turn arrow and the car across from me had a green light. He had the right of way and if that were an autonomous vehicle it would have gone. The guy across from me waited for me to go while I was waiting for him to go. You’ll get to intersections where the autonomous vehicle will be waiting for the correct moment to go, not based on what is going on around it, but based on it’s application of the rules of the road.
People will need to learn that they already rely on their vehicles to drive themselves.
There are a lot of drivers like me. I’m driving a car that’s a little older. We take care of it and it’s paid for. If you have a newer car, you already have a car that helps you drive. You have cruise control. The car maintains the speed that you set until you turn off the cruise or use the brake. There are several cars that have lane control sensors and they signal you that you are leaving your lane. Some even will help you get back into your lane. Some cars will let you know when you’re following too closely while others today will help you by proactively braking when you get too close to the car in front of you. There are active collision avoidance systems. Some cars are equipped to parallel park themselves. Your car already knows how to drive better than you in some situations.
The days of the self-driving cars are coming. The debate now is when it will happen and what those cars will look like. Will they have controls inside so that you can take over? When will you have to take over the controls? When will it let you take control. We are getting closer to the messy middle where we will all have to relearn how to drive in light of the self-driving cars around us.
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