Forget Self-Driving Cars. Bring Back the Stick Shift.
Technology meant to save us from distraction is making us less attentive
By Vatsal G. Thakkar
Dr. Thakkar is a psychiatrist.
I was backing my wife’s car out of our driveway when I realized I wasn’t watching the backup camera, nor was I looking out of the rear window. I was only listening for those “audible proximity alerts” — the high-pitched beeps that my car emits as I approach an object while in reverse. The problem was that my wife’s car, an older model, doesn’t offer such beeps.
I had become so reliant on this technology that I had stopped paying attention, a problem with potentially dangerous consequences.
Backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.
Perhaps one reason is, as a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put it, “Many drivers are not aware of the limitations” of the technology. The report also found that one in five drivers were just like me — they had become so reliant on the backup aids that they had experienced a collision or near miss while driving other vehicles.
The fact that our brains so easily overdelegate this task to technology makes me worry about the tech industry’s aspirations — the fully autonomous everything. Could technology designed to save us from our lapses in attention actually make us even less attentive?
Uber’s march toward a self-driving car hit a major speed bump last year in Tempe, Ariz., when one of its self-driving Volvos struck and killed a pedestrian. While a lot of focus was on how a vehicle with cameras and radar sensors could completely miss a human being on the road, less has been said about the failure of the most intricately programmed system in the vehicle — the brain of the human in the driver’s seat.
An investigation revealed that the driver was watching Hulu until the moment of the crash. Because the human brain is impeccable in its ability to filter out extraneous information, this type of behavior should have been predicted. During normal driving, our brains are in a near-constant state of vigilance. But let someone or something do the driving for us and this vigilance easily fades.
Something similar seems to have happened with a handful of fatalities involving Tesla’s Autopilot mode. It seems that the drivers made little to no effort to intervene.
The introduction of safety technology has resulted in unintended accidents in other contexts as well. In December 2017, a patient died at a major medical center when a nurse searched for an anti-anxiety medication in an automated dispensing cabinet by typing only its first two letters. She chose the first drug that appeared in the results — Vecuronium, instead of Versed. Vecuronium is a paralytic drug that is sometimes used in executions. When it was administered, the patient’s vitals crashed and she died within days.
Technology seems to have turned against us once again in the deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts. In October, pilots on Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia seem to have struggled against the plane’s supposedly lifesaving technology. Investigators suspect that sensors incorrectly interpreted the plane’s ascent as too steep, causing the plane’s “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” to kick in. It brought the plane’s nose down, ultimately into the Java Sea at 450 miles per hour.
Boeing had begun to develop a software fix, but it wasn’t ready in time for Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which just this month crashed, possibly because of the same bug, killing all 157 people on board. In these cases, no one can criticize the pilots for failing to pay attention. Still, the crashes were a wake-up call, especially because pilots weren’t required to be trained on the new technology.
Though a supercomputer will always surpass the human brain in terms of pure speed, the brain is beyond complex in its ability to reprioritize salient data inputs from multiple sources. If one input becomes less relevant, our cognitive systems shift their attention to the next most relevant one (which these days is usually our mobile devices).
But there’s one feature available on some cars today that can increase a driver’s vigilance instead of diminishing it — the manual transmission.
A car with a stick shift and clutch pedal requires the use of all four limbs, making it difficult to use a cellphone or eat while driving. Lapses in attention are therefore rare, especially in city driving where a driver might shift gears a hundred times during a trip to the grocery store.
I’ve owned a stick-shift vehicle for the last 20 years. I bought my first upon graduating from med school — a used 1994 BMW 325i. Years later, my best man wrote “just married” on the back windshield, and the next year my wife and I drove our newborn son home from the hospital in it.
Sadly, sales of manual transmissions are falling, and many automakers, including Audi, are discontinuing the option in the United States. It appears that I’ll have to keep my 2013 S4 model until 2026 if I want to teach my kids to drive a stick.
When I bought that first five-speed BMW, my dad cautioned me about safety, thinking that driving a stick would be more distracting and less safe. He was wrong. Though research on the safety of manual transmissions is scant, one study on the driving performance of teenage boys with A.D.H.D. revealed that cars with manual transmissions resulted in safer, more attentive driving than automatics. This suggests that the cure for our attentional voids might be less technology, not more.
Note: The late great Tim Mullin and I discussed this once. I thought his theory, like this doctor's was wrong. A few days later, I told him he was correct.