We’ve all had that feeling about another driver on the road—that moment you know they’re going to make a boneheaded move, and you need to be ready. Sure enough it happens, but catastrophe is avoided because you anticipated it. Will our robot cars be able to do the same?
Last week I was driving northbound on the Garden State Parkway, briefly in the passing lane, when I saw a white Chevrolet Cruze rapidly approaching. I got over into the center lane to let them pass me, but I had this strange sense that something just wasn’t right about this behavior of this Cruize driver.
We both approached the toll plaza where the road briefly splits into the fast lane EZ Pass section and the cash toll section. As she began to pass, I was in her blind spot, and that is when she apparently realized she doesn’t have EZ Pass and decided to cut across four lanes of traffic right before the concrete divider to make it over into the regular toll lane. There was a fraction of a second between seeing her drift into my lane and me slamming on my brakes. She missed me by what looks like a foot or two.
After my heart stopped racing, a question popped into my head. Had I been in an autonomous car or a car using something like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Supercruise, would the computer have been able to react in time? Maybe, I guess. That seems like leaving a lot to chance.
Had I been sideswiped at over 70 mph the results could have been catastrophic, if not deadly. I got lucky, but that luck had mostly to do with just a “bad feeling” about a fellow driver. There was nothing particularly obvious that would have indicated that this was an unsafe driver.
I don’t have some Spidey-sense about bad drivers—all of you have been in similar scenarios. Maybe you’re taking an exit and you just know the jackass in the other lane is going to merge too late. You tap the brakes before they make their move, and wouldn’t you know it, they dart right in at the last second with no signal.
But somehow you saw it coming. If someone were to ask how you knew to react that way, it would be difficult to point to a specific piece of evidence. It was just a feeling that comes with experience and time behind the wheel.
When I was first learning to drive, my mom told me “You need to assume all the other drivers will make the dumbest decision possible.” Of course, you can’t take that approach to the ultimate extreme because, you would never drive anywhere. The point is that a good driver is actively reading the situation and is prepared to react accordingly when those bad decisions happen.
However, I wonder as we enter this transition phase between semi-robotic cars sharing the road with other drivers, how much of that “feeling” can be programmed into these machines? Will they be able to sense bad drivers on the road the way humans can?
If not, it’s one more case to be made for not making human drivers obsolete quite yet. Elon Musk himself just said “humans are underrated.” He could be right in more ways than one.