Would a Computer-Driven Vehicle Make This Kind of Error?

(Photo: Loco2)

Reading about the horrific train crash in Spain that killed at least 80, and thinking back to the (rare) fatal airplane crash in San Francisco brought to mind the ride I took in a driverless car a few months back at Carnegie Mellon University. Many people still distrust a computer to get them from Point A to B. How long will it be before our thinking changes and we distrust humans to do the same? The train and plane crashes both appear to be due to human error, as are the vast majority of automobile crashes (which kill more than 1 million people worldwide each year).

I haven’t spent all that much time in Spain but one of the most striking observations from a recent visit was how hard it is to buy a train ticket from a machine. In many cases, you have to wait in (long) line for a human ticket-seller. Whenever I asked why, I was told this was simply done to protect jobs — an understandable, if unsatisfying, defense in a country with 27% unemployment.

It does make me wonder how much a country or culture with a strong sense of job protection will be resistant to technological changes purely on employment grounds, even if they might produce large gains for the greater good.


Some combination of computer and human control will probably be found to be the best option.

On an editorial note, Carnegie Mellon University does not have a hyphen in it (says this alumna).


Vancouver's Skytrain has been driver less since it opened in 1986. Very safe.

It does have the advantage of a totally separated track.


I think it would be hard to find a job much more boring than "driving" a train. Flying a small plane in level cruise is bad enough, but withe a train you don't even get a choice of where to go.


Remember that plane that landed on the Hudson..A strong argument against doing away with the human element.


Is it fair to use this anecdote to justify not using robotic vehicles? It was the MIRACLE on the Hudson after all. 12,000 people die (in the US) every year in vehicle accidents... some of them could be prevented with robotic driving. Also, humans are not going to get better at driving, but computers possibly could!

Joby Elliott

Resisting technology in the name of employment is stupid. It's only a problem because we cling to the idea that if you don't work 40 hours a week you don't "deserve" to have a decent life. Despite the fact that thanks to automation there's increasing *just not that much work that needs to be done.* If we could let that go (or at least put a stop to the greed of employers).

The average american worker today has more than double the economic output of his grandfather. You'd think that would mean we'd all be either working 20-hour weeks or making $100K/year -- and yet we work slightly more hours and bring home slightly less inflation-adjusted money. That's not technology's fault. That's employers' fault for being greedy, and workers' fault for being complacent.

It's primarily a cultural problem, not a technological or economic one.

Bill McGonigle

I was at the Atlanta airport with the kids with some time to kill so we rode between the terminals on the train. I noticed it was completely automated and told the kids, "awesome, we're riding inside a giant robot!". They thought it was fantastic, but I could tell some old ladies sitting across from us got very nervous. My take away was that most people would rather not know.


I'm from Turin. In my town the subway trains have no drivers.
The traffic is controlled by computer systems and by remote personnel.


I live in Brazil and I can say that keeping jobs is always a huge concearn and people avoids automation to keep jobs even when they make no sense and have a huge impact on the overall cost of services. There are many examples: automated lifts with attendents to push the buttons, collectors to charge the tickets in every single bus, manual toll takers in every road, and people collecting fees at parking lots. The list goes on and on. Everything to avoid firing people. I sometimes wonder how we managed to get rid of the manually switched telephone boards...


Well here is another accident caused by human error: