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How bright will the future be with autonomous autos?

Automobile automation seems on the one hand like the Holy Grail. With more than 30,000 deaths on the highway every year, and a substantial number of those death due to human error and negligence, an autonomous vehicle seems like it should be the answer to all of our problems.

A vehicle, controlled by a computer, offers hope of a utopian paradise, where cars glide along in perfect harmony, with car accidents a distant memory. At the very worst, it would probably be a vast improvement from the current situation on the roads and highways around Knoxville and everywhere else in the U.S.

We know humans make poor drivers. We like to go out and drink alcohol and drive. We drive when we are practically falling asleep, we talk on cellphones and read and send texts, and we do virtually everything else in a car or truck that we shouldn't. And all of it distracts from our paying attention to the road in front of our vehicle.

So, automation has to improve that situation. But the transition to "driverless cars" may not be as smooth and without trouble as some would assume. With a computer capable of making millions of decisions per second, and that never become drunk or exhausted, it would seem that most other problems would be easy to solve.

But there are hints of problems. For one there is the issue of "deskilling." With humans, when we stop performing a function, our capabilities tend to fade. It has occurred with airline pilots, whose activities have been reduced to the point where pilots only fly for a few minutes during most flights.

There is also the question of how do we program a computer to make ethical choices. If a semi-truck's brakes fail and it is heading towards a school bus or a crowded lane of cars, how does the computer decide which to hit?

We will look at this next week.

NPR.com, "Hands-Free, Mind-Free: What We Lose Through Automation," September 29, 2014

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