For self-driving cars, it’s all or nothing

It sounds like a great idea for a driver to be in a position to take over for the car’s computer if it gets confused or encounters something it can’t understand. But this is not going to work.

Autonomous and self-driving cars have gone from wild pipe-dream to testing and initial use. It’s easy to imagine that in 20 years, cars will be shuttling us around without any steering wheels or controls for a driver to operate even if they wanted.

How we transition to fully autonomous driving will be tricky. Many people think that we will have some sort of hybrid driver/driver-less car systems to start out. Obviously you could choose to drive in “manual” mode by having the driver operate the car and make all decisions. Or just get in the car and tell it to drive you to your destination and leave all the driving to the car’s computer. Either of these scenarios works fine, but you can’t mix driver and driver-less modes.

It sounds like a great idea for a driver to be in a position to take over for the car’s computer if it gets confused or encounters something it can’t understand. But this is not going to work.

The problem is not in the cars, but the way the human mind works. We are able to function, perform tasks and make our way in the world because we have a mental model of where we are in space and what we are doing. Unlike a computer, it takes time for a human to shift from one mental model to another. The mental model you use for posting on Facebook is much different than the model you need for driving a car on a busy interstate in the rain.

Charles Duhigg illustrates this problem brilliantly in his book “Smarter, Faster, Better,” by contrasting the stories of two airplane accidents, one that ended in disaster and one that ended with all on-board surviving.

Air France flight 447 was cruising over the Atlantic Ocean on autopilot when clogged pitito tubes caused the instruments to fail. The autopilot immediately disengaged, handing control of the plane back to the copilots who were reading, eating, etc. In other words, they were engaged with their surroundings using a mental model that was not related to flying the aircraft. The pilots had no way to quickly determine where they were in space or what was happening. Unable to understand the simple problem that was causing a false reading on one of the instruments, the very experienced crew stalled the plane all the way down to the ocean, killing all on-board.

Duhigg states, “[co-pilot] Bonin was in the grip of what’s known as “cognitive tunneling” — a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panic attention.”

Panicked attention is exactly what you will be experiencing as you are in the middle of composing a tweet and your car says “back to you” as it barrels toward a moose at 80 mph!

We may not like the idea of not having the option to take over from our cars in an emergency, but turning control over to a human could be much more dangerous.