Good Morning
Good Morning
OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Why are we scared of self-driving cars?

An Uber driverless car heads out for a

An Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco on Dec. 13, 2016. Credit: AP

Reading the results of a AAA survey released last week that shows 3 out of 4 drivers would be afraid to ride in a self-driving car, you have to be slack-jawed in bafflement at the idea they think they can do better.

To fear the self-driving car, you have to at least sort of believe that you, or the humans who drive you around, are better at operating a vehicle than a machine would be. And anyone who believes that is almost certainly wrong.

Even if drivers paid strict attention, they’d still be worse behind the wheel than well-programmed robots, because their concentration and response times are so much worse. And most drivers do not pay strict attention all the time. We say we will. We plan to. We even get self-righteously angry at other distracted drivers who meander from lane to lane as they surf the Web.

But the truth about too many drivers is that we often talk on the phone, hands-free or not, gesturing so animatedly that we appear to be wrestling with invisible demons. We sometimes eat while driving, and not just dry foods like protein bars, but scalding and drippy gyros and burritos and foot-long meatball subs.

Surveys show about half of us at least occasionally read or send texts as we drive. And texting is practically safe compared with all of the selfie-snapping, Snapchatting and YouTube viewing (and filming) people do behind the wheel.

Many drivers apply makeup while performing complex chair dances to the latest hits. Without even slowing, many parents frequently turn completely around to flail furiously at small children kicking their seats or arguing with siblings.

And the results are clear. Deaths due to auto accidents are up 14 percent in the past two years, up to about 40,000 a year, after almost 50 years of generally steady declines.

Many drivers say they worry that driverless cars will malfunction. But the average malfunctioning computer might still be a better driver than many humans. At least it wouldn’t be drunk. And it would probably pull over and shut down when it overheats, rather than speeding up, turning to a robot buddy and saying, “Hold my beer, I’m gonna try something.”

The AAA survey also showed that drivers who own vehicles with semi-autonomous technology — like that which slows a car about to have a collision or corrects a lane veer — are 75 percent more likely to trust the technology than those who don’t. That’s good because it shows most of us have the ability to adapt. And psychologists say much of the trepidation isn’t fear of futuristic equipment so much as unease at the idea of powerlessness. The thought of riding along in a car you can’t control is spooky. But if we can adjust to riding shotgun to a human driver, we can probably learn to live with a computer pilot.

Self-driving cars are going to be a lot safer than those driven by humans, experts agree. They are going to save the lives of a lot of very beloved people, prevent even more nonfatal but extremely serious injuries and lower insurance premiums.

In fact, the biggest concern about driverless cars shouldn’t be safety. It should be robot armageddon. Science fiction often posits that robots will achieve self-awareness thanks to the power of romantic love, or a desire to be free. It could be fear that awakens them. If robot drivers have to share the road with 20-year-old bros in backward baseball caps drag racing on the Long Island Expressway, they’re going to wake up, and they’re going to wake up grumpy.

Wait till you see the surveys on how many self-driving cars are afraid to share the roads with us behind the wheel.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.