After logging into Twitter today, I saw I-94 trending. Living in Baton Rouge, we don’t have that Interstate highway here, but I was curious. Usually, Twitter will give context about trending phrases, but it didn’t. I wasn’t expecting to see the news of a 40+ vehicle pileup in Wisconsin! NBC Chicago reported that over 100 vehicles were involved in crashes along I-94 in Jackson County, WI. This was caused by freezing rain, which in turn caused icy road conditions along the corridor from Menomonie to Black River Falls. The article noted that just before 6:00 am, the State Patrol and other emergency agencies responded to the crashes, and as they arrived, they saw a semi truck on fire with two passenger vehicles trapped underneath it.
For now, it’s reported that no one was killed in this pileup. That is a miracle. The passengers who were trapped in the vehicles under the semi were taken by bus to a safe location.
As someone who lives in the deep South, we get ridiculed for our inability to handle winter weather conditions. During last year’s winter freeze that rendered Texas unable to provide power and gas to its citizens, I remember seeing a lot of mocking and jeering about how the South can’t handle the north’s winter weather. Louisiana suffered also, along with several other southern states that simply are not used to this type of weather.
With this in mind, I’m quite surprised that there were not enough safety precautions taken by the state, and that so many human drivers couldn’t avoid crashing.
Human Error vs. Autonomous Cars & AI
Self-driving, autonomous cars are one of the hottest new technologies being developed. Although we are not as close to robotaxis and fully autonomous cars as Elon Musk would like us to be, I think that most of the criticisms of tech in development are fear-based and not reality-based. A large contributor toward that problem is how the majority of mainstream media outlets cover Tesla accidents, and almost always assume or word the headline to imply that Tesla’s Autopilot was the sole cause of the accidents.
In reality, it’s almost always human error, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has agreed to that. The NHTSA has a dedicated page, “Automated Vehicles for Safety,” where it states that 94% of serious crashes are due to human error and that automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation.
So, although it’s investigating Tesla’s every move as of late, the NHTSA does seem to be supportive of autonomous cars and self-driving in theory. I recently interviewed James Law, who has had his own experiences while working as part of emergency personnel who are struck by vehicles not following the Slow Down and Move Over laws. James is a wreck operator and he’s been struck four times while working. He shared some thoughts with me in another article and I’ll recap them here.
James told me that some people learn from their own mistakes as well as those of others. However, there are some who only learn from making the mistakes. If the latter habit is applied to traffic, this can be deadly. In the case of artificial intelligence, the AI learns collectively. James shared an excellent example: fire trucks being hit by drivers not observing the Slow Down and Move Over laws, and that online Traffic Instant Management (TIM) training instructs the fire truck operators to park at an angle when attending to the scene of an accident. He explained that the angled emergency vehicles serve to redirect traffic flow. It’s a visual cue that tells drivers to go in the direction that the fire truck is pointing in. The other reason is that if there is impact while the fire truck is parked at an angle, it dissipates the kinetic energy instead of an abrupt stop, thereby decreasing the chances of injury or death. This is known as the fend-off position.
Regarding some Tesla-related incidents, James pointed out that in each of those cases, the fire trucks were not parked at an angle but parked in less effective fend-off positions. This could seem minor, but if the car in front of you suddenly moves over and you’re faced with a fire truck in this position, it could confuse you. However, it won’t confuse an AI which would learn to anticipate and respond faster than humans.
You can read more of that analysis here.
Some Additional Thoughts
We have a long ways to go before every single vehicle on the road is a self-driving, autonomous car. However, this doesn’t mean that we demonize companies such as Tesla that are working on this technology.
As someone who doesn’t drive, I am not sure how an AI would handle icy road conditions. However, what we do know is that AI lacks the flight or fight response that humans have. Autonomous cars are not going to get angry, commit road rage-related crimes, or panic when it is suddenly confronted with black ice. Instead, it can take note of the weather conditions and drive extra carefully. It won’t be texting and driving or trying to eat while going 80 miles an hour down an icy highway.
And if it has the unfortunate problem of getting into an accident that it can’t stop or prevent, it will emotionlessly seek to reduce the damage by as much as possible. It won’t pray to God or cry. Its heart won’t race and it definitely won’t curse out the other drivers. I think you see my point.
Featured image courtesy of Wisconsin State Patrol.
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