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Like smartphones, self-driving tech may prove problematic for road safety

Why it matters to you

While self-driving technology has been lauded as safer than the human alternative, the rise of distracted driving may suggest otherwise.

Smartphones and safety just don’t mix. Certainly not on the road. Just ask car insurers who have found that drivers today are more distracted than ever because of their mobile devices, which has resulted in costs associated with crashes growing faster than premium increases. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “America’s drivers are becoming more dangerous by the day. That is pushing auto-insurance rates higher as insurers struggle to keep up.” And things might get worse as autonomous technology allows us to take our hands off the wheel even more often.

Although self-driving technology has long hung its hat on claims of being safer than human drivers, the MIT Technology Review is a bit skeptical, especially considering the history already laid forth by the advent of smartphones. The problem isn’t the car’s autonomy, but rather our increased reliance on this sort of technology, coupled with our growing distraction. Back in September, the Review noted, “If the driver is distracted and the autonomous system does not work properly, or if the human places too much confidence in the abilities of the driver aid and ignores the warnings and the road, things can go wrong.”

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Most of today’s self-driving systems are not yet fully autonomous. Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, only works part of the time, and still depends on humans to take control when the machine falls short. But as humans spend more and more time behind the wheel otherwise occupied (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted an 8.8 percent increase in fatalities as a result of distracted driving), they may not be taking control in due time. There’s already precedent for this kind of tragedy — just look at last year’s fatal Tesla Autopilot crash.

As a result, some car experts are suggesting that the answer lies in completely autonomous systems, thereby avoiding the risk of human error altogether. Google has long stood behind this position, and last week, Ford joined the tech company in this belief after finding that engineers were falling asleep behind the wheel of self-driving cars.

Of course, we’ve still a ways to go before we realize this advanced technology, so in the meantime, keep your eyes on the road and your hands off your smartphone.