Wheel-borgs: A losing battle of driver-filled cars reported as autonomous

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The problem of removing agency from drivers in reporting, especially reports on cyclist-driver collisions, is often highlighted by cycling advocates.

Time and time again, incidents are described in such a way that it sounds as if the car has a mind of its own. The driver is so far removed from the events described you can imagine them waking up, checking the news and roaring: “My car did WHAT?!” before racing off to stare in horror at the empty space where last night they’d left the offending vehicle before going to sleep.

I don’t think we’re ever going to win this fight. Perhaps, instead, we must go a step in the other direction, and acknowledge that a person in a car, van, or truck is not the same as a person outside such a machine. The human being inside a car is the same as Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit.

Drivers experience their vehicles as extensions of themselves. The person sitting in a car has nothing short of superpowers: they have superhuman speed, a superhuman scream, and an exoskeleton that has superhuman resistance to damage. Modern vehicles go a step further, providing cameras to allow superhuman surround-sight, and projection of information onto the windscreen reminiscent of, again, the figures and lines overlaying Iron Man’s visual impression of reality.

Inside the car, the driver pays a price for their superhuman capabilities. They are cut off from audio input, their padded shell designed to shut out sounds from outside. They are cut off from smell, from tactile sensation such as wind or rain on their face.

What sensory input may come from contact with the surface that supports them is muted by suspension in the chassis and the seat. Such severance from reality has consequences. People encased in cars and trucks are psychologically distant from the world around them, and their behaviour is affected. The circumstances are a recipe for indifference and lack of empathy on the roads.

The habit of talking about cars or trucks doing this or that is natural, because when moving, the driver is no longer just a human being. They become something different, a cyborg whose behaviour is unavoidably affected by the addition of a mechanical body.

They become the brain inside a new creature that is more than its parts. A car by itself is incapable of action. But a human by itself is vulnerable, slow, and connected to their environment. Combined, the two become a wheel-borg with superhuman powers, and an inbuilt psychological distance from their environment that we need to start acknowledging in our road design, our policies, and the strategies we adopt to try to make our roads safer for everyone.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

3 Comments

  1. Leinster Wheeler May 1, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    Walt Disney made a cartoon (Goofy in Motor Mania) in the 1950s where Mr. Footer was transformed into Mr. Wheeler when he got into a car in the manner of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I thought it was a very good representation. We may be losing the battle but rather than give up we should persevere – losing battles can be turned around.

  2. Mike McKillen May 1, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    Nadia Williams has put it so well about drivers incarcerated in their metal exoskeleton carapaces.
    “What sensory input may come from contact with the surface that supports them is muted by suspension in the chassis and the seat. Such severance from reality has consequences. People encased in cars and trucks are psychologically distant from the world around them, and their behaviour is affected. The circumstances are a recipe for indifference and lack of empathy on the roads.

    The habit of talking about cars or trucks doing this or that is natural, because when moving, the driver is no longer just a human being. They become something different, a cyborg whose behaviour is unavoidably affected by the addition of a mechanical body”.
    In Cyclist.ie we have long promulgated the view that the cabins of modern vehicles are designed as an extension of the living room at home and so the drivers are cocooned in a world of their own with little sensory feed-back from the external environment.
    Those vehicles are designed to provide unparalleled protection to the occupants (EuroNCAP ratings) so hence the inexorable growth in SUV body-types (the equivalent of a tank on our roads). However VRUs are left mightily exposed to destruction as a result of all these negative factors.
    The more sensors that are installed in modern cabins the more distraction for the driver because those screens have to be scanned and the information processed by an already somnolent driver.

  3. The number of screens and sensors makes no difference if the driver is looking at their phone instead of the road. It irks me when the road haulers’ lobby says they can’t install blind spot cameras because it would be too distracting. If you can’t check your blind spot camera before you make a manoeuver that could potentially crush a cyclist to death then you shouldn’t be driving a truck. What they really mean is that if they had blind spot cameras then they would be open to charges of manslaughter (or whatever the defanged version of that is when you use a motorized vehicle to kill someone) when you crush a person in your blind spot instead of just being able to throw your hands up and say the three lane wide blind spot absolves you of all guilt.

    The comment about cars being an extension of the living room is a good one because it also touches on why certain drivers are so resistant to public transport. We often hear, from completely unbiased parties like the AA, that we shouldn’t take space away from cars and give to public transport until public transport is good enough. Apart from being an argument obviously designed to preserve the status quo this should also raise the question about what ‘good enough’ is. I’ve heard this said about transport in Dublin. “We can’t limit cars on the quays/in college green/reduce speed limits, not until public transport is a viable alternative”. Unfortunately it seems that quite a lot of people won’t consider using public transport until it provides them the same facility as their car, a comfortable arm chair, a built in personal entertainment system, four seats all to themselves, no interaction with the rabble. Since public transport is never going to provide that (unless you count driverless taxis as public transport) then they concentrate on keeping what they have (no bus lanes, not until public transport is good enough, or hell freezes over which is more likely) and removing the downsides of using your private car for everything (increasing speed limits, wider roads, more roads, more parking, cheaper parking and getting pedestrians and cyclists out of their way).

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