The BBC ran with the headline ‘The most significant development since the safety belt’, directly quoting Thatcham Research’s opinion of Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), a feature in new Volvo cars. These systems use lasers, radar, or cameras to detect when the vehicle they are fitted to is too close to another car then trigger a warning. If the driver does not respond, the system applies the brakes automatically. Within the way we habitually think about transportation, Thatcham Research’s position makes logical sense. It is another question what such systems mean from the perspective of cybervirtue, that is, the potential for our technology to instil positive qualities in us.
We are deeply confused about cars and transportation, caught up in a series of fantasies that distort what it means to travel in this way. Perhaps most significant is the way we do not recognise that the car-human cyborg is the deadliest creature on the planet, responsible for more human deaths per year than the one million attributed to the mosquito (which typically is bestowed that ‘honour’). If we add the tens of of millions of people who are injured or disabled by motoring accidents, the situation becomes far worse – and this is without factoring in the environmental, political, and human impact of the demand for oil.
Thatcham Research are a reputable company who do respectable work, but their existence is premised upon buying into the imaginary world almost all of us share wherein cars are necessary and convenient. That we could eliminate almost all motoring deaths by capping the speed of all cars to 30 miles per hour is beyond consideration for Thatcham or indeed almost any of us – and this indicates the vast chasm between our desire to prevent deaths and our ability to look at our technology through honest eyes. The sense of freedom and power that the first car drivers experienced is now merely the dream portrayed by the automobile commercial, where amazingly the vehicle on display always finds empty roads.
As a system that autonomously operates a vehicle’s brakes, AEB seems unlikely to be a cybervirtuous system, whatever its mooted safety benefits, because such a system cannot possibly instil good habits, skills, or excellences upon its driver. Indeed, the opposite is true: by providing an apparent safety net against crashes, an AEB risks increasing the carelessness of those who drive with it. There is another possibility: that having the system signal closeness to another vehicle will increase the driver’s awareness of their road position. This would be a putative case of cybervirtue, instilling a certain cyber-caution into drivers engaged with AEB. Perhaps such a hypothetical scenario will make it easier to continue turning a blind eye upon the world’s deadliest cyborg.