Why Self-Driving Cars Should Never be Fully Autonomous

MIT professor and historian David Mindell says Google’s utopian autonomy is a more brittle, less functional solution than a rich, human-centered automation. Do you agree?


Full Automation a “20th-century Narrative”

So why, in the case of cars, are we back to a point where many people are envisioning a driverless future? In a way, Mindell says, this vision of the future belongs squarely to the past.

“I think the narrative of full autonomy is a 20th-century narrative,” Mindell says. “It’s a narrative of industrial mechanization that’s kind of filtered its way through the 20th century, supported by 20th-century science fiction. These narratives can and should change.”

Still, the idea of total automation is the approach taken by Google, most notably, in its development of self-driving cars. Yet as Mindell also observes, there are many challenges to the Google model: Its cars must identify all nearby objects correctly, need perfectly updated mapping systems, and must avoid all software glitches.

Ultimately, Mindell writes, “Google’s utopian autonomy is a more brittle, less functional solution than a rich, human-centered automation.” He predicts that the fully driverless model will not be the most successful, both for technical and social reasons.

“The notion of ceding control of something as fundamental to life as driving to a big, opaque corporation - people are not comfortable with that,” he says. Additionally, other companies and research groups looking at automating cars are “very clearly not going for the Google approach to fully driverless cars.”

Other scholars have found “Our Robots, Ourselves” to be valuable. Ian Bogost, a professor of media studies and interactive computing at Georgia Tech, calls the book “a lucid, hype-free exploration of how robotic automation really works” in tandem with human design and operation.

Mindell says he is eager to see how technologists, especially robotics engineers, react to the book. Among the places where Mindell is scheduled to speak on his current book tour are Microsoft and, yes, Google. In time, Mindell says, he believes his perspective will come to be more widely accepted, and that full automation on the roads will not seem as desirable a goal.

“I think the public discourse is slowly coming around to there is another way to do it,” Mindell concludes.

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