The dangers of semi-autonomous cars

About six or seven years ago, I was driving on a nearly empty stretch of I-95 in Connecticut around midnight when a car cut me off. The driver slammed on his brakes, and, with no room for me to safely get around him, I braked, too. He came to a stop in the middle lane of the highway, with me a half-car length behind him, panicked out of my mind. As cars came up behind us, most heard my beeping, saw the hazards, and steered around us.

My half-baked plan to not die if I got rear-ended by a car going 65 mph was to hit the accelerator, smash into the car in front of me, and, using basic laws of physics, have the hypothetical car behind me propel both our cars forward as a unit. The dual purpose of the plan was to ensure that by the time my car was hit, I had already overcome static friction and could be pushed ahead more easily (i.e. reducing the momentum change that kills you) and, if the car in front of me is already moving, would avoid breaking my neck when slammed forward by the hypothetical rear-ending car and then slammed to a stop by the car in front.  (Thankfully, I didn’t need to use that plan; the car in front of me suddenly drove off after about a minute, which was also coincidentally a mere ten seconds before a police cruiser drove up.  Insurance scam, anyone?)

Suffice to say, the idea of a semi-autonomous car that cannot be overridden scares the crap out of me.  I’m all for avoiding fender-benders, but the gross accidents that can kill you are the ones to be scared of – and are precisely the sort that are hard to prevent via semi-autonomous (read: half-brained) software.  What could have saved my life is exactly what that software doesn’t want you to do: slam down the accelerator and go plowing into the car in front of you. Software is good at keeping itself focused on tasks like “Don’t hit the car in front of you” or “beep when there is someone in the blind spot,” but is distinctly terrible at making value judgements, e.g. it is better to rear-end the car in front of you than be frozen in place when rear-ended at 65 mph, or it’s better to swerve off the road than be killed by a tractor trailer that is spinning out of control.

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