Autonomous cars took to the streets of Milton Keynes yesterday, and the media and the UK public look on with a combination of amazement, puzzlement and fear. Strap yourself in, this is just the beginning.
The Lake Wobegon Effect is being writ large today across the media. For that matter, so is receny bias.
Autonomous cars, developed by Transport Systems Catapult, or TSC, were unveiled to the public yesterday, in Milton Keynes.
The autonomous vehicles, which are little pods, are just about big enough to house two people and are as about as sexy as a pair Rupert the Bear trousers, nonetheless, mark a revolution.
The little pods come with a host of sensors, such as LIDAR.
If you are interested, LIDAR was invented by nature many millions of years ago, because this is the technology used by bats as they navigate with uncanny accuracy. The idea is simple enough, shine a light at an object and measure the time it takes for that light to be reflected back. The technology itself was first developed in the 1960s, to begin with it was used by the military, by the police (in speed guns) and in surveying.
Neil Fulton, programme director at TSC said: “Driverless vehicles are coming to Britain and what we have demonstrated today is a huge step on that journey.”
And on this theme, the business secretary, Greg Clark, said: “The global market for autonomous vehicles presents huge opportunities for our automotive and technology firms.
“The research that underpins the technology and software will have applications way beyond autonomous vehicles.”
But the media and public were full of doubts.
What about the ethical considerations they suggested, suppose an autonomous car is a position in which it is going to crash, but it can swerve one way and hit a child, swerve another way and hit a pensioner, how can it choose?
It’s an odd doubt, how many times do you face that kind of dilemma when you are driving?
The real issue here is the Lake Wobegon Effect, named after a radio series in the US, in which all the women in a town were more beautiful than average, the men more handsome and the children more intelligent. It is also called illusionary superiority, illustrated by a study by Svenson who, in a survey conducted amongst students in both the US and Sweden, found that 69% of Swedish students questioned thought they were better than average drivers, while a stunning 93% of US students thought they were better than average.
Once the problems are ironed out, autonomous cars will be much safer than human drivers. The number of car accidents will fall. But they won’t be safer than “me, because I am a better than average driver,” says, or at least secretly think, average drivers around the world.
Recency bias applies when we put undue emphasis on a recent event and tend to think it applies going forward. We see it all the time, and it is linked to availability bias, when we tend to focus on events that seem more noticeable. So after 9/11 there were more deaths caused by car crashes, as Americans avoided flying and took to the much more dangerous roads instead, than actually occurred on the day itself as a direct result of the terrorist attacks.
Recency and availability bias are also illustrated when sales at a lottery ticket outlet rise after a winning ticket was bought there.
There have been a couple of accidents involving Tesla cars, supposedly while in self-driving mode. There is no evidence to suggest that such accidents are more likely than in cars that are being driven by a human, but the media seize on such accidents and exaggerate their significance.
But autonomous cars will come through, and within ten years or so from today, will dominate the streets.
Others fear that they will hit jobs – well, err, yes they will. Hard to argue that point.
But there is a wider less commonly understood factor.
Once cars are driven by computer, we will lose a sense of attachment to our machine; car ownership will become less popular, car sharing will take-over. Less cars will need to be made to meet demand, and people will be less discerning about what their car looks like when they share it.
Autonomous cars will change the world, they will be safe, because they will drive much closer together, they will ease traffic congestion and cut household spending on transport, but they will hit jobs and hit the car industry.