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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Self-Driving Cars and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

The anxiety of surrendering control.

We are at a major juncture in technological developments with respect to how we travel in cars. In a February 13, 2017, article Janet Burns reported that Ford Motor Company announced plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years in self-driving artificial intelligence in a virtual driver system to be created by Argo AI. The plan is to roll out fully autonomous vehicles in 2021. Burns quoted Ford Motor’s president Mark Fields’s statement about these development having as significant as impact as the moving assembly line did 100 years ago. All the major car manufactures are racing to manifest self-driving cars and state governments are poised to enact laws concerning them.

Jack Steward reported in a February 13, 2017, article in Transportation that Tesla sells cars that drive themselves on the highway but the driver must constantly be ready to re-take control of the vehicle. However, quoting Anuj Pradham who studies human factors at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, research on human factors is lagging behind AI developments. Steward reported on interesting developments such as some BMW models popping up a steaming cup of coffee icon if the steering wanders, and Toyota has a camera that monitors driver’s eyelids to register sleepiness. Apparently driving an autonomous car is very boring and falling asleep is a major risk factor that must be addressed.

Self-driving car accidents have made the news in 2016. Three crashes involving Tesla cars equipped with autopilot were reported, one of them involving fatality of the driver in Florida. A September 14, 2016, New York Times article by Neal E. Boudette reported on a fatal crash in China that may have happened while the automated driver-assist system was operating. The specifics facts surrounding the crashes were debated by officials. Jay Ramey, in a July 13, 2016, article in Autoweek, reported that Tesla’s cars require drivers to acknowledge that they must keep their hands on the wheel at all times and that the autopilot is in the beta phase and that the driver needs to maintain control at all times. Joel Stocksdale reported in his auto blog that the German government was not pleased with Tesla using the Autopilot name as it was misleading and requested it not be used. Stocksdale reported that Tesla responded with survey results of German Tesla owners that showed 93% of respondents understood the requirements and features of the “autopilot” system. There is no mention about what concerns there might be about the other 7%. California also pressured Tesla to change the name of "autopilot."

Stories of tragic auto crashes involving this new technology are extremely disturbing. However, perhaps more disturbing is the fact that an estimated 40,000 people died and 4.6 million roadway users were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2016 according to a February 15, 2017, article by the National Safety Council. This data comes from the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the CDC.

So what does all this have to do with post-traumatic stress disorder? Specializing in auto accident trauma for the past 15 years, I have observed that survivors are horrified by the idea of giving up control following car crashes. As self-driving cars are introduced into society, new challenges with be posed for auto accident survivors with PTSD. In an informal survey I conducted with my patients with PTSD from auto accidents, the consistent response concerning self-driving cars was “no way.” The thought of surrendering such control is terrifying for them. Much of therapy is aimed at helping patients regain a sense of control over their lives. Driving again often involves a slow recovery process. My prediction is that recovery from auto accident trauma will be more difficult in the new era of autonomous vehicles because of this loss of control issue. On the other side of the coin, there may be far fewer accidents once the technology is developed so there will likely be far fewer cases of auto related PTSD.

Currently the leading cause of PTSD is auto accidents. Given the horrifying statistics we face daily regarding auto accident trauma around the world, we are left with a disturbing question. Are human beings capable of driving safely? The statistics say they are not. Yes, there are some excellent drivers, but it only takes a short trip around town to see that many drivers engage in high-risk behaviors that place themselves and others in danger. Will there be horrible accidents involving autonomous cars once the technology is perfected to the point it is the mainstay? Most likely yes, but my guess is that the causality statistics will be far less.

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