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A Step Too Far

I’ve noticed recently a worrying problem.

Manufacturers have started to get better with their technology, and have started producing cars which do automatic braking.

If you can’t understand me, imagine this. You’re driving your car on a motorway, and are following the car in front. The car in front suddenly pulls an emergency stop. In this situation, a computer can react faster than you can, so an onboard computer applies the brake pedal quicker and stronger than you can, and so slows the car to an immediate stop. For a video showing this in action, check out this Gizmodo page

This technology is currently in development with some manufacturers, but Mercedes Benz have recently released the technology on the new S Class.

Now this sounds all fine and dandy, except something worries me. I’m worried that people will become to used to the technology – that they will rely on the computer to do their work for them, and not on their own senses and intuition. I’m worried people will get into the mentality of “Oh, it’s OK to drive really close to the car in front, the computer will take care of the braking”. I drive a lot everyday (it’s more than a 60 mile round trip to work and back), and I see people do the most stupid things (I’m not saying that I have never done anything stupid myself) just because they weren’t thinking. To relax the brain even more is just asking for trouble.

This worries me because driving is a very analogue, random process. There is no fixed solution for a situation, no simple rules to follow when something occurs. Computers follow rules, humans can deliberately break those rules because, through experience, they know better.

Take for example the new Mercedes S-Class. This takes the braking thing one step further, and can actually follow the car in front. This means it will brake when it needs to, and accelerate when it needs to, and always maintain a safe braking distance. Now this is fine for motorway travel, where you can just put the car in gear and cruise, but imagine what would happen if you came up to a roundabout. The car would follow the car in front, so approaching the roundabout, it would slow as the car in front approached the line. If the car then leaves the line quickly to fit into a space, your car would then follow, and potentially smash into the side of another car.

Not a good plan.

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  1. Rich
    June 12th, 2006 at 16:22 | #1

    … two rebuttals:
    1. This is exactly the same as the response to the introduction of seat belts in the US. While it\’s true that people would be a lot more cautious with a 10-inch spike on their steering wheel, I don\’t think I drive any less safely knowing that I have a seat belt.

    2. This situation is one in which a computer can do a definitively better job. If I\’m changing the radio and the truck in front of me breaks, I die, and cause a large pileup. Indeed, even if I\’m watching I might have an accident. I\’m unlikely to rely on the computer braking for me, and not bother, because the consequence of failure is too great; however, having a failsafe is a good thing.

    Finally, regarding roundabouts — my cruise control works down to 25mph, and I occasionally use it around town. This doesn\’t stop me watching the road. I\’m sure that people won\’t be stupid enough to tail people with their S-class, and I expect it would turn off as soon as you make a sharp turn.

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