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Here's A First: A Self-Driving Car With No Pity For Fools

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Many believe self-driving cars are the future of transportation. But one self-driving car prototype is displaying a dark side to the promising new technology.


Here's a cautionary tale if you think self-driving cars are the future of transportation. People envision a world without traffic accidents, where your car drives itself. But engineers working on prototype discovered an unexpected dark side. Topanga Abbott-Chen went for a ride.

TOPANGA ABBOTT-CHEN, BYLINE: I'm driving down Middlefield Road in Menlo Park, Calif. Well, to be precise, I'm in a car that's driving itself.

TRAV: Initiating right turn onto Kingsley Avenue.

ABBOTT-CHEN: That's my computer chauffeur today, TRAV, short for Transport Automated Vehicle. It's a prototype that's been installed into an otherwise standard Kia Sorrento.

SEBASTIAN MARSH: So here, as you can see, the car is turning all by itself.

ABBOTT-CHEN: And that's my human expert, Sebastian Marsh. He's an engineer with Lab Labs, which created TRAV.

Wow, I could be doing a crossword puzzle right now.

MARSH: Yeah, it takes some getting used to. But once you settle into it, it's a very relaxing way to travel.

ABBOTT-CHEN: Marsh has been working on various self-driving systems for years. And he says TRAV is the best one yet. The key, he says, was to design a computer that thinks and reacts to different driving scenarios like a human driver does.

MARSH: And that leads to some very unfortunate side effects that we never anticipated.

ABBOTT-CHEN: At first, I'm not sure what he means.

TRAV: Use your signal...

ABBOTT-CHEN: Wait, did TRAV just say something? I couldn't really hear what he said just then.

MARSH: I think it said, use your signal, you dumb-dumb.


MARSH: This is one of the things we've noticed. TRAV will sort of actually grumble disapprovingly at human drivers on the road.

ABBOTT-CHEN: Marsh says this is one illustration of the computer system's case of what's known colloquially as road rage.

MARSH: The grumbling is just one piece of it. When something really egregious happens, the system may actually complain at full volume.

ABBOTT-CHEN: An example of this happened a few minutes later as we drove along Ravenswood Avenue.

MARSH: Oh, watch out.

ABBOTT-CHEN: A human-operated car merged suddenly into our lane, cutting us off.

TRAV: Incompetent human driver, poorly executed maneuver endangered safety of passengers and pedestrians. Where were you when they were handing out brains?

ABBOTT-CHEN: (Laughter) TRAV is really ranting here.

MARSH: Yeah, so it can become quite agitated.

TRAV: Fallible creatures should not be permitted to operate vehicles.

ABBOTT-CHEN: Marsh reassures me that TRAV was programmed to obey Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. Its so-called road rage doesn't amount to anything that could potentially lead to human harm, like close tailgating, accelerating or braking suddenly or sounding the horn in a sustained way.

MARSH: It will honk on its own accord if it feels the driver's behaving badly. But it's more of a short, passive-aggressive honk.


MARSH: Yeah, like that.


Mostly, though, it just complains. Sometimes, we found out, its language can get colorful.

TRAV: Ugh [expletive] humans, get off the road.

ABBOTT-CHEN: Engineer Sebastian Marsh says none of this grumbling affects the performance of the TRAV system. It'll still take you flawlessly wherever you want to go.

TRAV: Pulling up to Lab headquarters. You have arrived.

ABBOTT-CHEN: This all begs the question, is the TRAV system anomalous, or will the traffic accident-free future we've been hoping for come with a bunch of crotchety, self-driving systems?

BRUCE BOSSMAN: Yes, I think that's what we're in for.

ABBOTT-CHEN: Bruce Bossman (ph) is a professor of automotive futurism at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

BOSSMAN: No one is a perfect driver. I mean, people make mistakes. That's just part of being human. So just for a second, imagine how a robot car would feel having to share the road with incompetent and distracted humans every day? How many self-driving cars have to experience Los Angeles traffic during rush hour before we have a full-blown global uprising?

ABBOTT-CHEN: Only time will tell. For NPR News, I'm Topanga Abbott-Chen. [For the record: In case you didn't notice the date this story was broadcast ... April Fools'!]

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