Leave the Driving to Us

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Some experts predict automated cars will be commonplace in five to ten years. Ride sharing and automobile manufacturing companies are investing heavily in this technology. Yet I was not surprised by the recent news of a fatality caused by misuse of a Tesla's autopilot.

On a recent family vacation to visit cousins in Sweden, we rented a new Volvo that had many automatic features, although unlike a Tesla, the driver was mostly in charge. I was excited to try this technology: cruise control that followed other cars, automatic steering to keep you in your lane, to name a few. This was the brave new world of car automation and I was excited to give it a try.

My family tolerated several minutes of my enthusiastic discussion of these features. It was exciting the first time our Volvo followed the car in front from highway speed down to a complete stop, through a round-about, and then back up to highway speed without ever touching the peddles. When I veered slightly in my lane, the steering wheel would turn itself to correct my path. If I got too close to the edge, the wheel would shake to let me know. A coffee cup symbol appeared at one point to warn me I was getting erratic and suggested a break. Amazing.

Over time, however, frustration replaced enthusiasm. I couldn't always get the cruise control to follow the car in front. Sometimes when changing lanes, the car would fight me by turning the wheel in the opposite direction. Oddly, our smart car wasn't bright enough to realize that a brake light on the car ahead meant the driver was slowing. By the end of the vacation it became obvious that safely using the automation took a lot of effort and was very different than normal driving. The last hour of the trip I shut off the automation and just drove the car. It was easier that way, and probably safer, too.

All new technologies need time to develop and I'm excited that companies are pushing the envelope. But judging from our Swedish holiday, the future of automated cars may be a little farther off than the experts seem to think.


With a Perspective, I'm Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist. He lives in San Francisco.