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January 21, 2017

Alabama’s Fear of Autonomous Vehicles is Becoming Irrational.

Alabama and its fear of technology

People are scared of many things. For example, I would be the first person to tell you that I am not a huge fan of snakes. I can see its purpose, but I would never own one as a pet. Does my, dare I say, irrational fear of snakes mean that I should march on to Montgomery and demand regulations that require ALL snakes to be banned from being in the state? No! That is ridiculous and so is banning innovations like Autonomous Vehicles in Alabama!

In 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) published an article addressing the question the safety of everyone on the road due to Autonomous Vehicles.

“How will a Google car, or an ultra-safe Volvo, be programmed to handle a no-win situation — a blown tire, perhaps — where it must choose between swerving into oncoming traffic or steering directly into a retaining wall? The computers will certainly be fast enough to make a reasoned judgment within milliseconds. “

The article also addresses the “Trolly Problem” in programming autonomous vehicles.

“Imagine you are in charge of the switch on a trolley track. The express is due any minute; but as you glance down the line you see a school bus, filled with children, stalled at the level crossing. No problem; that’s why you have this switch. But on the alternate track there’s more trouble: Your child, who has come to work with you, has fallen down on the rails and can’t get up. That switch can save your child or a bus-full of others, but not both. “

If you are concerned about what action the machine would take, just think about the choice you would make in the same situations. It is an uncomfortable and scary decision even to imagine.

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Car manufacturer Tesla recently came under fire after one of their first accidents resulting in the death the driver. Tesla, in the end, was not only found to have been cleared of its AI having committed any malfunction, but the National Transportation Safety Board went so far as to cautiously praise the company for their safety protocols and innovations.

“We want to promote these technologies,” says Bryan Thomas, communications director at the NHTSA. “They will save lives and cut crashes dramatically, but innovation is a bumpy road.”

More examples of Tesla’s Autopilot doing impressive things have since surfaced including a dashcam video of the car warning its driver of an impending crash two cars ahead of it.


Where does Alabama’s legislature stand on this topic?

It is only just beginning to come up. A bill was introduced last February, and it is now in committee.

The Bill requires that additional studying on the subject be completed before letting them roll out on local Alabama streets, as well as addressing other concerns about the need for additional insurance and liability. State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was recently quoted as saying… 

“With a self-driving car, I could get drunk at Damn Yankees, get in my car and say, ‘Siri, take me home,’” he said. “But if there’s a wreck, who’s responsible?”

As a state, we must be accepting of technology enough to be innovative instead of, once again, being last to adopt. We finally have an opportunity to work to allow one of these innovations…. even if we were not the first this time. To be innovative and move our state into the future will sometimes means we need to work with things that are a little scary to us.