Driverless Cars: A Misguided 20th Century Idea

Our Robots

IEEE Spectrum:

A vision of fully autonomous, self-driving cars allowing human owners to nap or read in the car seems to come from the future. But David Mindell, a historian and electrical engineer at MIT, says that the idea of such fully autonomous vehicles roaming the streets represents a more rigid vision left over from the last century. Mindell casts some doubt over the current course along which Google and other huge tech companies are racing to build self-driving cars that don’t require any human supervision.

In his new book, released this month, titled, “Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy” (Viking/Penguin), Mindell envisions a future in which humans are kept in the loop for (mostly) self-driving cars and other robotic technologies, rather than taking them completely out of the equation…

Spectrum: What do you think of the current focus of Google and other tech companies pursuing self-driving cars?

Mindell: Overall, robotics is still focused on full autonomy as the ultimate goal. Researchers should be working on a “perfect five” with trusted, transparent, flexible collaboration between people and autonomous systems. (The “perfect five” refers to the middle of a scale for automation that ranges from very low at level 1, to fully autonomous at 10; the concept is based on the work of Tom Sheridan, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.)

Such systems should have the ability to turn on autonomy when it can be helpful. Autonomy can reduce human workload and fatigue, but humans should still be present in the system. That’s an empirical argument based on everything we’ve seen in the last 40 years of autonomous systems. People are always thinking that full autonomy is just around the corner. But there are 30 to 40 examples in the book, and in every one, autonomy gets tempered by human judgment and experience.

Spectrum: You’ve said that the best way forward involves a mix of humans, remotely-controlled systems and autonomous robots. Do you think the future you’re hoping for is the one we’re likely to see?

Mindell: I’m hoping the likely future is the one I’m arguing for. There is a quote in the book from the chief of BMW saying “People buy our cars because people like driving them; we’d be crazy to cut them out of the loop.” I think the world is ready for a more nuanced approach to robotics.