Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Computers Are Supposed To Assist The Driver To Keep Control Of The Vehicle, Not To Take It Away

The plan by the New South Wales government to test new technology to prevent drivers from speeding has triggered a heated debate. While many people would be likely to consider it a good idea, there are still some concerns about a range of issues. Two forms of the technology will be the subject of the trial. One will alert the driver whenever the speed limit is exceeded, and it will be up to the driver to take action, while the second will allow the computer to cut power to the engine if the driver ignores the warning. This version will allow the driver to override the computer, but a third variation where the driver has no power to override the computer is also possible. All three depend on a GPS navigation system and a database of every speed limit on every road in the state. That is where the trouble starts.

Already many people use GPS in-car navigation systems, and most of those already offer the speed advisory feature which warns the driver by sounding an alarm if he is travelling too quickly. It is a very useful feature, and works well to keep drivers out of trouble. Unfortunately however, the database is not always correct. There are occasions when the speed limit in the computer is not the same as the speed limit posted on the road. Sometimes there are variations because of road works. Sometimes there is simply a mistake in the programming. While the driver still has control of the vehicle he can recognize such errors and act accordingly. On the other hand, if the computer takes control of the car at an inopportune moment it could potentially be dangerous.

In the development of computer management systems for modern aircraft, problems were encountered in situations where pilots were unable to regain control of the aircraft from a computer which was following its programming despite impending disaster. Any computer is only as good as the input it has been given, and is incapable of judgement or discretion. That is why it should be a device which assists the driver, but which leaves the ultimate responsibility up to the individual in charge of the vehicle.

In the end, the driver of the vehicle is supposed to be responsible. The driver is supposed to exercise sound judgement. If society continues to remove the need for personal responsibility, we will only have more and more individuals who are not responsible, and who don’t know how to act independently without the nanny state to think for them. As personal responsibility is undermined, individuals will also come to feel disempowered, potentially promoting resentment, frustration, and anti-social reactions.

While it might make some sense to restrict the top speed of cars in a country where the highest speed limit is 110 km/h on motorways, there is another reason why the George Orwell system of complete computer control is unlikely to get the green light anytime soon. Indeed, 82 million reasons, as that is the number of dollars collected by the state from speeding drivers in a year. If the government were to be serious about so called “intelligent speed adaptation” devices, assuming that they could be made to work properly and fairly, it would then need to find that revenue somewhere else.

Of course, speeding is against the law because it is dangerous, and it would not be right to encourage or condone speeding. Road safety is important, but the most important contribution to road safety is responsible driver behavior. That means drivers being in control of their cars and making responsible decisions. If we give that responsibility away to a computer we are diminishing the individual. If the individual abuses that responsibility, then it is a matter for the law. Computers are supposed to assist the driver to keep control of the vehicle, not to take it away.

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