We were rolling eastward across the San Mateo Bridge in an Audi A7 at a dutiful 55 miles per hour, and I was riding shotgun accompanied by two of the car's engineers. With a sticker price topping $70,000, the A7 is a fancy car, but not an uncommon one along the stock-option-paved highways of Silicon Valley. I looked around at the drivers around us, knowing they hadn't a clue about what was happening right beside them. Traffic was getting thick, as rush hour approached. Outside the window, the water of the San Francisco Bay was a dull green, like patinated copper, pitted by tiny waves. A bright blue sky. Our car’s test driver was smiling pleasantly, hands on his thighs, not touching the steering wheel at all.
Then the car in front of us slowed. Our car, sensing this, began to change lanes gradually. But then came a driver to our left, dickishly racing into our blind spot, cutting us off. I griped to myself about California drivers with their composting and their unvaccinated kids and their vestigial turn signals. But the Audi wasn’t bothered. It merely sensed that other car coming, drifted back to center of our lane, and eased onto the brakes so as not to hit the car in front of us. You wanted to be scared, but it was over before you realized it happened. It was like being driven by that uncle who could tell you how to survive a snake-bite or order a roast chicken in seven languages. You trusted what was happening, and that was remarkable: The car, by design, was calming me before any worries could surface. This is exactly where so many carmakers have failed.
Amid the drumbeat about driverless cars—Google! Tesla! Apple!—it's easy to miss just how far they have come, and how fast. I've asked a few people what they think these things are capable of. The consensus seems to be something a bit more advanced than a remote-controlled car. Maybe a bit like a monorail at Disneyland without the rail?
Here's the reality: cars that drive themselves are already arriving to market, one button at a time. We have cars that swerve to avoid accidents orpark themselves. Cars like these are already wreaking havoc. Maybe one of the funniest viral examples you can find on Youtube is of a bunch of people at a car dealership, testing out a feature on a Volvo that they think prevents it from hitting pedestrians. You can’t see the hapless driver settling in behind the wheel, but let’s imagine him wide-eyed, bristling with excitement as he prepares to slam on the accelerator. In the foreground stands a guy in a pink shirt, his posture giving off this brittle mix of apprehension and excitement. He’s leaning forward, bracing just a little bit: Ready for magic. Holy shit!
The driver slams on the accelerator. The car doesn’t stop. It plows right through the guy in the pink shirt, who flips up onto to the hood like a rag doll tossed by a pit bull. People scream. The camera spins wildly, forgotten.
Self-driving cars went viral again recently, when Tesla dropped a $2,500 software update on its customers that promised a new "autopilot" feature. The videos are fascinating to watch, mostly because of what’s not happening. There’s one, titled "Tesla Autopilot tried to kill me!" where a guy drives with his hands off the wheel for the first time. He hasn’t replaced driving with, say, watching a movie or relaxing—instead, he’s replaced the stress of driving with something worse. He looks at the road, he looks at the wheel, he looks at his hands. He’s scared. And he’s smart to be scared. His car, unable to detect the lane dividers that guide it, veers into oncoming traffic. Luckily, he snatches the wheel away.
Somewhere in between where we stand now, annoyed at how much time we waste sitting in traffic, and the future, where we’re driven around by robots, there will be hundreds of new cars. Their success doesn’t simply depend on engineering. The success depends on whether we, the people, understand what some new button in our brand-new car can do. Can we guess how to use it, even if we’ve never used it before? Do we trust it? Getting this right isn’t about getting the technology right—the technology exists, as the Tesla example proved so horribly. The greater challenge lies in making these technologies into something we understand—and want to use.
In those Tesla videos, the drivers don’t know what the car can’t do. It’s not telling them. Techies and Tesla boosters were quick to lay blame. Don’t these idiots know how all these things work? Don’t they read the instruction manuals? These are echoes of the least productive trope in computing history, the one that Steve Jobs railed against: The idea that the user is wrong, and that we should all bend to the capabilities of a machine instead of the machines bending to us.
The people looking terrified in those Tesla videos? That’s not their problem. It’s a design problem.
CONTINUE READING HERE
This article was published on Fast Company. A link to the original piece appears after the post.