One of the great advantages of self-driving cars is how scrupulously they follow the rules of the road.
But because of the nefarious behaviour of some human drivers, it may also prove a major disadvantage.
A new study into drivers’ attitudes towards self-driving cars has found that some drivers intend to “bully” autonomous vehicles when they hit the road — driving aggressively around them in the assumption that they will have to stop and let the bully through. We first heard about this study from The FT.
It makes sense: Imagine there are two cars waiting at a junction, one self-driving, and one human-driven. The self-driving car has right-of-way — but the human goes anyway. The self-driving car, programmed to protect its passengers and avoid harming other drivers, will stop itself — letting the aggressive human driver go.
Of course, this kind of behaviour is illegal. But that doesn’t stop some drivers from defying the rules of the road today. Faced with a predictable autonomous vehicle with lightning-fast reflexes, it will likely encourage this behaviour even more.
The study — conducted by researchers from the London School of Economics in partnership with Goodyear — had 12,000 respondents from 11 European countries. It found that the majority of people are on some level uncomfortable with autonomous vehicles — whether riding in one or just being on the road alongside one while driving a manual vehicle.
However, people who are more “combative” and aggressive on the road are less concerned about autonomous vehicles — suggesting that they believe they will be able to take advantage of them. “The people more open to AVs are those who have a more ‘combative’ view of the road and are more technologically optimistic on average, who perhaps see AVs as easier agents to deal with on the road than other humans,” the study said.
One UK-based participant told the researchers: “[The autonomous vehicles are] going to stop. So you’re going to mug them right off. They’re going to stop and you’re just going to nip round.”
Another reiterated the expectation that self-driving cars will be totally law-abiding: “We’ll be overwhelmed by niceness. They’re never going to do anything horrible to us. They’re nice cars. They’re not going to cut us up or get up our backsides and all the other things.”
There have been fears that people will take advantage of self-driving cars like this before. Roger Geffen, who works for cycling body CTC, told The Guardian that “if pedestrians and cyclists can run or swerve out in front of cars knowing they will stop, some people will doubtless take advantage of this. That would infuriate drivers, leading to calls for jay-walking and on-road cycling to be banned altogether.”
It will be years until self-driving cars are common-place on city streets, but numerous companies are investing heavily in the space. Uber, Google, and Apple are all working on autonomous vehicle tech, while a number of legacy auto manufacturers are also developing it.
But it poses significant challenges, from both a technical and social perspective. What moral value the the technology should place on human life — in the case of an imminent crash, should the vehicle prioritise the well-being of passengers or pedestrians, for example — is just one of the thorny issues engineers are grappling with.