First Click: Autonomous cars, they are not

September 29th, 2015

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Car software has grown into one of the hottest topics in tech this year, and the recent revelation of Volkswagen using it to cheat emissions tests ensures that it will stay that way for a while to come. And since we’re talking about car technology more than ever, I think it’s important to get the language right — starting with the abandonment of the misleading use of “autonomous” to describe cars that are still very much under human control.

This matters because people are instinctively fearful of machines that can make their own decisions. HAL in 2001: A Space OdysseyAva in Ex Machina. An autonomous computer is not as trustworthy as one that simply executes orders — it’s more human in that way, and humans know not to grant absolute trust to other humans, especially in matters of life and death. With cars, this personification is even more pronounced, since many people already anthropomorphize the appearance of their vehicles, whether it be the grill and eyes on the front or the big round bottom at the back. Now cars are getting smarter, able to do more than simply react to the tug of the driver’s yoke, but we are making too big of a leap when we describe that as autonomous behavior.

A so-called self-driving car is no different from any other computer. Data is put in — the passenger’s desired destination and environmental parameters from a series of sensors — and then a solution is produced and executed. When you jump into the 2020 Apple Car and tell Siri to take you to the ball game, Apple’s software might make a whole host of calculations and micro-decisions in order to figure out the optimal route, but it’s ultimately adhering to your instructions. It’s as bound to that dictum as your oven is today when you tell it to reach and then maintain a certain temperature. In both cases, the user doesn’t have to give precise navigational or timing instructions — the machines are smart enough to figure out the details for themselves.

The functionality that is being developed right now is closer in purpose and effect to autopilot. Yes, it’s the same stuff that airplane pilots have had for decades, only now we have the precise, connected, and affordable sensors and processors to recreate it in the more constricted space of public roads. I believe it would be beneficial to speak of it in such terms. Humanizing cars and giving them the ability to make their own decisions is scary. Having sophisticated software that intelligently follows the user’s instructions and adapts to its environment is less so. It’s the difference between HAL and the Discovery One spacecraft that is his home.

Remember that Volkswagen’s blunder was simply in getting caught: the software worked exactly as intended, and insofar as it served a nefarious purpose, that came from its human designers. There will be many more debates down the line about exactly how smart we want to make cars and how we want them to respond to circumstances around them. It’s for that reason that we should calm the rhetoric down from the notion of autonomy — which would entail the ability for the car to disobey its user’s directions — to the simpler and more universally familiar language of autopilot or even self-driving.

Sure, cars are becoming autonomous to an extent, but that’s an evolutionary process that began with basic mechanical things like power steering, braking assists, and traction control. Just because it now involves more software and sophistication doesn’t mean we need to jump to extremes derived from our favorite dystopian tales.

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