Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Save us from ourselves Google!

People are scared of all the wrong things.  They worry about terrorism when the chance of it killing you is roughly 0.002% and they fail to worry about the flu and pneumonia when those kill 1000 times as many people as terrorism.  They also worry way too much about the dangers of flying and not nearly enough about the dangers of driving.  As a sad sidenote it has been calculated that in the US about 1500 people died in traffic accidents due to driving more and flying less after the 9/11 attacks; they should definitely have continued to fly, from a short term safety standpoint.

Google, ever the champion of righteousness, is coming to our rescue.  Cars that drive themselves are now becoming legal in a few US states and certainly that trend will continue north of the border and around the world.  There are clearly a few tricks to having a driverless car on the road and some obstacles to overcome but we can't ignore the obvious advantage that computers kick our collective asses at things like driving.  Obeying the rules, staying on the road, and not hitting things are actually really easy under the great majority of conditions.  The problems really only emerge when you introduce the people factor:  Being drunk, being exhausted, having screaming teenagers in the car, driving beyond the speed limit, and other unnecessary risks that we take far too regularly.

We chuck all kinds of money at health problems that we can barely make a dent in to try to extend human life.  Modern medicine can perform some wonders but I think we could actually improve health care and longevity in most modern societies by cutting money from the healthcare budget and diverting it into getting every car on the road driven by a computer.  Would we have a few collisions because the computer crashed?  Sure.  But in the wash we would save huge numbers of lives by preventing people from doing stupid things and killing themselves.  Want to get loaded and drive home?  Go nuts!  Desperately need a nap on the way to work?  No problem!  I might recommend finding the money to encourage driverless vehicles by cutting out things like useless fighter jets instead of slashing healthcare costs but either way it is a winning proposition.

This issue is all tied up in dumb psychology.  We are afraid in planes because we have no illusion of control.  They are astoundingly safe but without our hands on the wheel there is a fear that something up front is going wrong and we have no idea what it might be.  90% of people believe they are in the top 50% of drivers by skill so very few of us have a realistic idea of how good we are at driving.  We have this collective delusion that somehow our talents can make up for our impairments and risky behaviour and it kills us in remarkable numbers.  We don't need perfection from a computer to drastically improve our road safety, just a driver that obeys the laws and brings its full focus to bear every single time the key is turned.

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