Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Driving with empathy

By their nature, cars impede empathy.

Which is good, because when we're driving we need to be able to focus on the road and the cars and the signs and the traffic. We can't spend our time communicating and reaching out, we have to be isolated in our cars, separated from the world and flying down highways at amazing speeds in a little metal box.

I've heard about the new self-driving cars and trucks being tested and I'm all for them. I think we should be able to stop worrying about protecting our lives while we drive, and get back to the incredibly difficult task of living our lives and being people.


I'm going to get a little Luddite here; I think that driving is the most unnatural thing we do as humans and we should find a better way to do it. Perhaps it's the lonely nature of a ritual commute or the fact that it's wholly unlike anything our early human ancestors would have ever done, but it doesn't feel like it's what we should be spending hours or days or weeks of our life doing.

The closest 'natural' experience I have to driving is walking. I imagine that I'm strolling down a street, keeping a certain distance from the people around me. Other people are moving too, but they are moving at close to the same speed as me, so it doesn't look like we're all moving very fast. My instincts tell me this is a reasonably safe thing to do, because it is. When I'm walking there's little chance that bumping into another person will result in my immediate death or harm.


Driving feels like walking, but it's also such an inhuman experience. We don't see and understand the stresses of our fellow drivers, we don't have their faces to interpret. We don't talk to them and they don't listen (well, maybe we do but they don't hear us). Perhaps that's what makes it feel so unnatural.

There are some people who are inventing ways to better communicate while driving (see the Wiper Wave). I wondered if there were other great ideas out there for a special invention or 'empathy system', so I asked my Facebook friends for help.

I did get some responses;  such as "Front and back lights display one word messages that can be voice activated by driver" or the "Apology sign.". These types of responses are like the Wiper Wave, because they are about expressing ourselves ('talking') while we drive. One person even wanted telepathy, the ultimate communication!

Talking is a two-way street, though, and someone has to listen. One of my friends said that we don't need a better way of communicating at all; instead, we need to all pay more attention to the signals we're already sending and receiving; such as lights and hand gestures. I'm not sure I agree; but it does tell me that we're not treating each other like people on the roads.

Unlike a nice saunter down an avenue, driving (especially commuting) is very dull. I'm just completely done with the same roads and the same cars and the same highway signs. Sure, when the seasons change it gets a little more interesting but it's still tedious. Getting bored is apparently a common thing, and more importantly, when we get bored we stop paying attention to anything and people get hurt. (See bored,  bored and bored).


I imagine a future where I enter a road on my regular commute, and my car (all by itself) locks into place directly next to someone else's car. I'm not driving anymore, I'm riding. So maybe I'll relax, make a few calls and talk to my friends or family. Maybe I'll be working already, talking with someone over a computer screen or finishing up a project with my team. Or maybe I'll strike up a conversation with Sonia, the girl in the car next to mine.



tldr: Self-driving cars will be great, because then we won't be bored and we'll start talking to each other again.


JP said...

I, for one, welcome our new self-driving overlords!

SL said...

More testing required. Human override must be available. Also not sure it would work in the chaotic madness of city traffic.

Janet said...

Thanks JP!

Hi SL - I agree they have to be safe. You may be interested to see what's going on with this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_driverless_car