Autonomous vehicles and the decline of the emotional brain

This post is more speculative than usual.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. Someday soon drivers will pay even less attention to the road in front of them than they normally do. Today, vehicle control is largely an emotional task. In traffic engineering, one of our many abbreviations is PIET:

  • Perception – driver sees object
  • Identification – driver identifies object (understands stimulus)
  • Emotion – driver selects action
  • Reaction (Volition) – driver executes action

But this is all very fast, not contemplative, operating in what Kahneman would call System 1 rather than System 2. In short, if we start to think intellectually about whether to apply the brakes, we are already dead. I suspect one of the causes of road rage is the continued operation within this emotional rather than rational brain for extended periods.

With autonomous vehicles, an hour or two a day for the average driver will be taken out of this high-risk emotional decision context, and into a more relaxed, less stressful mode, where the most difficult decision will be whether to listen to Pandora or Spotify. In short, the car trip of the future will be more like an office or home than then the uncertain dangers of the open road.

As an admirer of Spock (Mr., not Dr.), moving towards a more considered, this less emotional world of the future is a good thing, something humans have been doing for millennia as we evolve from the apes.

As we take out what is often the most stressful element of the day, will we “stress-compensate”, just as we risk-compensate now, and find some other activity to make needlessly emotional? Or will we take our gains in a more civilized society?