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Are self-driving vehicles more dangerous than those operated the old-fashioned way? If you ask the average citizen, the answer appears to be yes. A study out of the Research on Active Transportation Lab (REACT) at the University of British Columbia found a deep-seated suspicion of self-driving vehicles. Researchers told participants that UBC was testing self-driving cars in Vancouver and showed them eight video clips of interactions between pedestrians and automobiles at crosswalks. Four dark late-model sedans were labelled as self-driving and four were labelled as human-driven.

Forty-one per cent of the 1,133 who participated felt that “pedestrians faced reduced safety and comfort levels in [self-driving car] interactions.” In contrast, 34 per cent believed they were safer and the remaining 25 per cent had no opinion either way.

The trouble is all the videos shown were of human-driven vehicles. No driverless cars were involved. The UBC researchers say the deception-based study fooled 96 per cent of participants. The perception that the driverless cars diminished pedestrian comfort and posed more danger to pedestrians reflected good old-fashioned human bias.

“The strongest determinant was their general orientation to technology,” Alex Bigazzi, associate professor of civil engineering at UBC and REACT principal investigator, says to The Globe and Mail. “Early adopters, who have a positive bias toward technology were more likely to view self-driving vehicle interactions positively, regardless of their age, gender, income or similar factors.”

And the 41 per cent who viewed them negatively have no idea just how terrible human beings are at driving.

Self-driving vehicles are not perfect – they struggle to cope with variables that human beings handle, such as pedestrian behaviour, but by many other metrics they are safer. The least reliable part of any vehicle is the person behind the wheel. According to U.S. General Services Administration Office of Motor Vehicle Management, 98 per cent of auto accidents in the United States are caused by human error.

As someone who spends a lot of time delving into the world of human-driven vehicles, I can confidently maintain that there are millions of drivers out there who are so unsafe and reckless that they should not only be prohibited from driving, they should be prohibited from thinking about driving and enunciating the word “drive.”

Here is a small sample of the latest news in human-driven vehicle achievements:

  • Crashed into a driving school. Upside – Great opportunity for high school English teachers to define irony.
  • Busted for stunt driving on the first day of school in mom’s car.
  • Two intellectual giants turning a highway into a grotesque wrestling match.
  • Too many impaired driving incidents to list.

Given the evidence, how can people be so biased against self-driving vehicles. They aren’t against autopilot on airplanes.

“Generally speaking, we are really bad at assessing risk, especially in traffic situations,” says Bigazzi. “People very consistently display irrational bias to risk.”

Human beings, for instance, weigh intent when evaluating an accident. It appeals to our sense of morality, but this is irrational because the intent does not affect the damage caused. An unintentional severe accident is worse and more harmful than an intentional fender-bender. When given a hypothetical choice between being killed in a plane crash or a car crash, most people will choose the car crash, even though there is no real difference because the outcome (you’re dead) is the same. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”

The bias extends to self-driving vehicles.

“Given the choice, people would strongly prefer that a car crash be caused by a human error rather than computer error,” says Bigazzi.

A yes, human error. The word carnage gets thrown around a lot. When it comes to traffic accidents and fatalities it’s no overstatement. It’s carnage. Self-driving technologies can make streets and highways safer, if they are introduced correctly and with the proper regulation. It won’t cure congestion and road rage – only vibrant public transit will do that – but it can’t be worse than the current slaughter. Self-driving vehicles do not get road rage. They do not get hammered on vodka and kill people. People do that.

The results of the UBC study show some reason for optimism. Of those surveyed, 55 per cent supported driverless cars on public roads and 92 per cent supported the application of rules “ensuring driverless cars have identifying marks and requiring a human driver in the driver’s seat, prepared to take control in an emergency.”

It’s normal for people to be nervous about technology. When Prometheus, the ultimate trickster, popped down from Mount Olympus and gave humanity fire, there were certainly some folks who were reticent. When the car radio was invented, there were doubters who said it was a dangerous distraction.

So, let’s not be too biased against our future robot overlords. They mean us no harm – at least for now – and ultimately self-driving vehicles will make the roads a safer place to be.

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