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Self-driving Cars Need Possible Human Intervention

— May 14, 2015
Image: Uncredited/Google
Image: Uncredited/Google


A word of advice from Consumer Watchdog to all self-driving car companies: self-driving cars need possible human intervention accessories such as brake pedals and steering wheels. The group pointed out the necessity of such items that would allow the human occupant to take control of the vehicle in emergency situations. Further, the group is concerned about the data these robot cars will be collecting and, more specifically, the manufacturers use of that data.

It may seem like a no-brainer to some people or a surprise to others that these robot cars should have basic things such as brake pedals and steering wheels, but until last year these items were not required in California. The California Department of Motor Vehicles adopted regulations in 2014 requiring these items, as well as accelerator pedals, to be installed in the many self-driving cars being tested in the state.

Consumer Watchdog’s Director of Privacy Projects, John Simpson, said, “It’s the height of folly to put a vehicle on the road that a human being can’t … take control of. Ultimately, down the road, we think this is a technology that when coupled with humans can improve safety. The problem is we’re not there yet.”

His concerns may originate with the fact that Google recently released the details of eleven accidents involving the company’s test cars over the last six years. Google’s Chris Urmson reported that they were minor accidents with little vehicle damage and no injuries. He added that the robot cars caused none of the eleven accidents. Seven of them were caused by other (human) drivers rear-ending the robot cars, usually at stoplights. If robots can dream of electric sheep, can robot cars get whiplash?

Three other accidents were “sideswipes” and one occurred when another (presumably human-driven) car ran a stop sign. This isn’t a bad record for a vehicle fleet with 1.7M miles under its tires. The test vehicles are required to have specially trained drivers capable of taking control should something go wrong.

The other concern is the “Big Brother” aspect of the data collection system in the robot cars. Self-driving cars are continually collecting data about their human passengers. Some of this data would be particularly valuable to advertisers or other interests, such as insurance companies.

Carmen Balber, Consumer Watchdog’s Executive Director, said, “Will information about how often you happen to drive to a liquor store be provided to your health insurance company? There are infinite possibilities for the misuse of this data.”

That’s a very good point. I agree with the need for steering wheels and brake pedals. After all, if Rosey (points if you get the reference) loses a cog while she’s taking me to the gym, I want to have a way to prevent said cog loss from resulting in my fiery death. My biggest concern though, is the data issue.

I live a fairly simple life. I go to the grocery store, the movies and the gym, just like anyone else. I don’t often go to the liquor store Ms. Balber mentioned, however, I did go recently as a favor to a neighbor without a vehicle. Even so, I don’t think my insurance company needs to know that I took a detour to Dairy Queen or missed a few days (or weeks…) of going to the gym.

And don’t even get me started on the advertisers! It’s already maddening on the Internet: one search for a hard-to-find item and I’m inundated with ads pertaining to said item and its multiple accessories. I can’t imagine having to sit through ads being “beamed” into my car. I love Rosey but I don’t want to be trapped, an unwilling audience, subjected to mindless advertisements while I’m trying to catch some good tunes on the radio.


Consumer group says self-driving cars need steering wheels, too

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