Breaking the Law Is Safer When Everyone Else Is Breaking It

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson
breaking the law is safer when everyone else is breaking it

Google. While breaking privacy laws seems to be their global sport of choice, they sure do stick to the letter of the law when their autonomous cars are perusing American roads.

Oddly, that’s a problem according to the New York Times, because the rest of us operate our automobiles in a legal gray area, bending the rules to our benefit when we know we won’t get caught.

Google’s autonomous car project is — in its simplest form — four wheels, an array of sensors and software that tells the wheels what to do based on signals from the sensor array. Because that software is programmed in a way that follows traffic law in an absolute form, human drivers don’t know how to react it — and it doesn’t know how to react to humans.

This is because, for the most part, we break traffic laws is small ways all the time.

For example, four-way stops:

One Google car, in a test in 2009, couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward, looking for the advantage — paralyzing Google’s robot.

If the Google car had been programmed to break the law by not waiting for all other vehicles to stop, it would have made it through the intersection.

But, it isn’t just the autonomous car of the future; drivers are having difficulties with the semi-autonomous features of today found in a number of vehicles, like lane departure warning systems:

Humans and machines, it seems, are an imperfect mix. Take lane departure technology, which uses a beep or steering-wheel vibration to warn a driver if the car drifts into another lane. A 2012 insurance industry study that surprised researchers found that cars with these systems experienced a slightly higher crash rate than cars without them.

Bill Windsor, a safety expert with Nationwide Insurance, said that drivers who grew irritated by the beep might turn the system off. That highlights a clash between the way humans actually behave and how the cars wrongly interpret that behavior; the car beeps when a driver moves into another lane but, in reality, the human driver is intending to change lanes without having signaled so the driver, irked by the beep, turns the technology off.

As difficult as it will be for autonomous vehicles to seamlessly blend in with the current infrastructure — regardless of the condition of that infrastructure — the biggest hurdle will likely be something much more difficult to change: human nature.

Join the conversation
2 of 58 comments
  • PeterKK PeterKK on Sep 03, 2015

    Not human nature, just human habits. Also how is inching forward "breaking the law"?

  • DC Bruce DC Bruce on Sep 03, 2015

    About half the time when I encounter the "4-way stop problem" one or more of the drivers signals the other to proceed. How is the Googlemobile going to deal with that? I'm also thinking of the Air France flight that crashed in the south Atlantic after departing Brazile. The conclusion was that the sensors got confused, the autopilots disconnected and the flight crew had no idea what was going on. They put the aircraft into a stall, and several hundred people died.

  • Art Vandelay Dodge should bring this back. They could sell it as the classic classic classic model
  • Surferjoe Still have a 2013 RDX, naturally aspirated V6, just can't get behind a 4 banger turbo.Also gloriously absent, ESS, lane departure warnings, etc.
  • ToolGuy Is it a genuine Top Hand? Oh, I forgot, I don't care. 🙂
  • ToolGuy I did truck things with my truck this past week, twenty-odd miles from home (farther than usual). Recall that the interior bed space of my (modified) truck is 98" x 74". On the ride home yesterday the bed carried a 20 foot extension ladder (10 feet long, flagged 14 inches past the rear bumper), two other ladders, a smallish air compressor, a largish shop vac, three large bins, some materials, some scrap, and a slew of tool cases/bags. It was pretty full, is what I'm saying.The range of the Cybertruck would have been just fine. Nothing I carried had any substantial weight to it, in truck terms. The frunk would have been extremely useful (lock the tool cases there, out of the way of the Bed Stuff, away from prying eyes and grasping fingers -- you say I can charge my cordless tools there? bonus). Stainless steel plus no paint is a plus.Apparently the Cybertruck bed will be 78" long (but over 96" with the tailgate folded down) and 60-65" wide. And then Tesla promises "100 cubic feet of exterior, lockable storage — including the under-bed, frunk and sail pillars." Underbed storage requires the bed to be clear of other stuff, but bottom line everything would have fit, especially when we consider the second row of seats (tools and some materials out of the weather).Some days I was hauling mostly air on one leg of the trip. There were several store runs involved, some for 8-foot stock. One day I bummed a ride in a Roush Mustang. Three separate times other drivers tried to run into my truck (stainless steel panels, yes please). The fuel savings would be large enough for me to notice and to care.TL;DR: This truck would work for me, as a truck. Sample size = 1.
  • Ed That has to be a joke.