When a car that claims to be “self-driving” is involved in an accident, the whole country finds out about it. Machine learning and big data have created a new era of smart technology, (what experts call the fourth industrial revolution) which means that we as a society are actively deciding what jobs robots should and shouldn’t be allowed to do. Lots of different tech advancements are thrown around in the debate on A.I., but no invention is as commonly praised or critiqued as the self-driving car. People who support self-driving cars argue that they prevent accidents, reduce air pollution, and make morning commutes more productive. Those on the other side of the debate don’t deny that a driverless car would be great in theory, they only complain that such a car has not been invented yet and probably never will be. The nation is just waiting to see if a safe self-driving vehicle will ever actually come to market.
It is because of this debate that news of self-driving car accidents spreads across the world faster than a virus. A Tesla Model S crashed and caught on fire in Texas earlier this spring. Before the flames were put out, rumors that the car had been on “Autopilot” had already sped across the country. Even major news outlets like the Wall Street Journal propagated the fake story. Later, a government organization called the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Model S’s autopilot function could not have been in use at the time of the accident because a few of the autopilot’s requirements, like a paved roadway, were not present. The truth was eventually revealed after professional analyses and some angry tweets from Elon Musk, but no one found the true story as interesting. Regardless of whether Tesla Model S’s are safe or not, stories of driverless vehicle crashes endanger us all. We are eager to learn of self-driving car malfunctions because we want to know if we can trust them, and media conglomerates exploit this eagerness to pander distorted and fabricated stories of autopilot failures and driverless deaths.
These rumors of unsafe driverless vehicles put us all in danger because they delay the development of life-saving transportation. Self-driving cars are already safer than human operated ones, and they continue to get safer with every update. Driverless vehicles could save millions of lives a year if we would just trust them more. People have a hard time relinquishing control over a dangerous activity like driving to a machine, and so we choose to drive cars ourselves even though it is objectively more dangerous. Millions of Americans have already died from their reluctance to purchase a self-driving vehicle. Would you give away your life, or a loved one’s life, just so that you didn’t have to trust a machine to get you home? Probably not, and yet this is the deal Americans make when they avoid driverless cars. The autopilot in self-driving cars is “driven” by A.I. Each new point of data helps the car learn how to react in different situations. An early accident in a self-driving car occurred when the autopilot didn’t recognize a white trailer. A human died because the car didn’t have enough data about white trailers. The good news about such a malfunction is that, unlike human error, it can be completely eradicated in the future with more data and development. Self-driving cars are already safe, and they would be even safer if they had more data. The problem with data is that the cars acquire data by being driven, and not enough people drive them. Of course, you shouldn’t risk your life just for a few more data points. Since driverless cars are already safer than the one you own now, buying one wouldn’t mean risking your life to collect data, it would mean saving your life and collecting vital data on top of that. If people are too hesitant to buy a driverless vehicle, then safety issues stay around for longer, which turns off potential users, and continues the cycle of unnecessary death.
What can we do to fight this cycle of fear? The best thing to do would be to buy a driverless vehicle and take it all over the country, but that option is financially improbable for many. The next best thing would be to calm the fears of those who oppose self-drivers. Remind your friends and neighbors of how safe driverless cars actually are. Tell your eco-friendly coworkers that self-driving cars will protect the environment. The U.S. Department of Energy found that driverless vehicles could reduce energy consumption by as much as 200%.
Big opponents of driverless vehicles know that these cars could get rid of gas and other outdated industries, and they use scary stories to spook Americans away from self-drivers. In the end, our reluctance is what will kill us. In this case, curiosity will save the cat. Don’t throw away your life, rely on A.I. cars.