How to Drive Like a Robot

17 Dec 2013

In his superb piece about autonomous cars in the New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger explains that making cars drives themselves is in large part about making them act more like humans. The (fascinating) example he gives is the four-way stop sign:

Most drivers don’t just sit and wait their turn. They nose into the intersection, nudging ahead while the previous car is still passing through. The Google car didn’t do that. Being a law-abiding robot, it waited until the crossing was completely clear—and promptly lost its place in line. “The nudging is a kind of communication,” [Sebastian] Thrun told me. “It tells people that it’s your turn. …The car has to learn that language.”

The required behavior is deeply human. It’s a fundamentally social interaction, and if autonomous vehicles are ever going to be widely adopted, they will need to master this and many other similarly subtle interactions. We’re teaching them to act like us.

But I think there’s a great deal that we can learn from them, too. Why should we take lessons from the robots? The obvious reason - the statistics are widely cited, and no less horrifying for it: 1.24 million deaths and as tens of millions of injuries annually, the vast majority of which are avoidable. This is a moral imperative. There’s a direct line between driving like a human and all of that bloodshed and misery. The looming prospect of self-driving cars just puts in stark relief the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way. The robots will be far safer than we are, but until they take over, we must strive to be more like them.

Of course, our faculties don’t allow us to drive entirely like robots. Our field of vision does not extend 360 degrees, we can’t see in infrared, we get tired, we lose focus. But there are ways in which we can emulate machines, and should, and for the last year, I’ve been consciously emulating them whenever I drive (which, granted, as a New Yorker, isn’t that often). In a way, I’m just doing what I was taught in driver’s ed: driving boringly, responsibly, like an adult. My point is that we should all be inspired to do so more deliberately now that our robot competition has shown us how bad we are.

Here’s what it’s like to drive like a robot:

  • Observe the speed limit, especially around bikers and pedestrians. The risks just aren’t worth the seconds saved.
  • Follow at a safe distance. Tailgating gains nothing but a greater likelihood of collision.
  • Accelerate and brake smoothly. (This also improves fuel efficiency, and passengers - especially those prone to motion sickness - appreciate it.)
  • Honk only for a damn good reason. cf. The Onion.
  • Be solicitous of bikers and pedestrians. Try to be constantly aware of the obligation not to kill and maim vulnerable fleshy mammals.
  • Don’t text. This is nearly as irresponsible as driving drunk (don’t do that either, by the way). Whatever you have to say can wait.
  • Most importantly, always pay attention.

Driving like a robot will not necessarily make you popular. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, on the way back to Brooklyn from picking up a turkey at Stone Barns, I was driving south on the West Side Highway, first in line at a red light. It turned green, and without enough room to get all the way through the intersection, I stayed put. The human behind me laid on the horn. I’ll admit I took some pleasure in not moving an inch.

I find this mode of driving to be surprisingly difficult, surprisingly enjoyable, and surprisingly exhausting. Try it. I bet you’ll enjoy it, and when you realize how difficult it is, you may find yourself more inclined to cede control to a robot in the (I hope very) near future.