Texting on the road is dangerous. The solution: self-driving cars.

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Oct. 12 2010 5:38 PM

Don't Worry, the Robot's Driving

Texting on the road is dangerous. The solution: self-driving cars.

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Last month the Highway Loss Data Institute, a research organization funded by the auto insurance industry, put out a study claiming that automotive texting bans don't work. Thirty states and the District of Columbia prohibit texting while driving, and eight of them, plus D.C., also require hands-free devices for use with cell phones. But in four states that the HLDI examined—California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington—passage of texting bans did not seem to reduce the rate of accidents.

In Slate, James Ledbetter took issue with the study. He pointed out that researchers hadn't taken into account the huge rise in texting; even if the texting bans didn't reduce accidents, they may well be keeping accident rates steady, because even more people would be fiddling with their phones if we didn't have these laws. I don't quite buy Ledbetter's thesis, because HLDI's study also showed that accident patterns in states with texting bans looked similar to those of nearby states that hadn't banned texting. (If Ledbetter were right, we'd have seen an increase in crashes in states without bans.) But even if you believe the laws are working now, they can't hold off the driving texters forever. More people buy smartphones every year, and carmakers keep adding new and better ways for us to connect those devices to our cars.

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Texting bans are based on what would seem to be a common-sensical idea about the dangers of modern technology and cars—that tech and driving don't mix. Drivers need to focus on the road, and Internet-enabled cell phones, music players, and GPS devices are causing us to lose focus. Until now, society has decided that the way to fix the problem is to legislate concentration—to force us to ditch our devices as a means to keep our eyes, our ears, and our fingers fixed to the road. But what if that's the wrong approach? If we want to make our cars safer, perhaps we shouldn't discourage tech from entering the cabin. Instead, we should embrace it.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Google is building a car that can drive itself. The search company's small fleet of self-driving cars—guided by roof-mounted sensors and a battalion of cloud-connected servers—has driven more than 140,000 miles with minimal human intervention. The cars can obey traffic signs, merge on to the freeway, and avoid pedestrians and bicyclists. I was stunned by the news; two years ago, I interviewed several auto-safety engineers about the potential for self-driving cars, and they all told me that the technology was decades away. Google told the Times that its cars are still an experiment, and the company hasn't decided to turn the tech into a commercial product. The tech still has kinks—Google's cars don't know how to obey traffic cops' hand signals, for instance. Still, self-driving automobiles appear to be on the way to revolutionizing modern transportation. Google's technology could make cars safer, more efficient, and a lot more pleasant.

Indeed, it's fascinating to think about how automated driving will change how we spend our time in the car. Americans squander nearly an hour each workday commuting. That's exactly why legislating concentration seems like a futile approach. Working from the road has become a hallmark of the American economy—we're all being pressed to be more productive, and the many hours each week we're trapped in our cars seem like the perfect time to get something done. Many industries (like freight companies and plumbing outfits) require workers to be tied in to the central office using onboard computers, and even office workers feel the push to stay connected while on the road. What's more, research suggests that while both teenagers and adults (PDF) know the dangers of texting while driving, we're all overconfident about our own abilities to multitask on the road—you think it's dangerous for me to look at my phone while I'm driving, but you're pretty sure you can handle it. (And texting laws are so spottily enforced that you're pretty sure that you can get away with it, too.)

Rather than trying to eliminate distraction, the Google approach aims to do something that could prove much simpler and more effective: make distraction less dangerous. The problem with texting while driving is that we're not cognitively equipped to do both tasks at the same time. But why should driving be so cognitively onerous in the first place? We already rely on computers to handle a lot of driving hassles—your cell phone can map out your route before you leave, it can find nearby gas stations, it can give you turn-by-turn directions, it can show you which roads are jammed, and it can even intelligently select some tunes you might like to hear along the way. Your car is also no tech slouch; modern vehicles use software to manage much of the driving experience, including the brakes and the steering. Given how steadily computers have invaded every part of the driving experience, it doesn't seem like a big leap for them to take over the wheel. That would free us up to handle much more intrinsically human tasks, like looking up movie show times. Perhaps this explains Google's motivation for looking into robotic cars: If you're not driving, you'll have much more time to surf the Web.

Of course, robot cars aren't an immediate solution to the problem of distracted driving. Over the next few years, long before production-ready vehicles can drive themselves, we'll continue to see upticks in the use of dangerous gadgets behind the wheel. But robotic autos could be closer than you think. Many automakers are already selling cars that take over the wheel in specific circumstances. Autonomous cruise control systems found in some luxury cars can automatically maintain a safe following distance, and some systems alert you when you're about to drift out of a lane or hit the car in front of you. There are also several cars that can automatically steer you into a parallel parking spot.

These technologies point to the future of driving. Today, it's tempting to reach for your phone when you're stuck in traffic—but by all means, don't do it. But just wait a little while longer. Some day soon, texting will be pretty much the only interesting thing to do on your way to work.

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