Coping with uncertainty

The first death of driver in a car while using Autopilot has been widely reported with much hyperbole though with a few notable exceptions, for instance Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair on July 7th, 2016 who pointed out that you were safer statistically in a Tesla with its Autopilot functioning than driving normally.  This is based on the fact that worldwide there is a fatality for every 60 million miles driven, or every 94 million miles in the US, whereas Joshua Brown’s tragic death was the first in 130 million miles driven by Teslas with Autopilot activated.  This implies that globally you are twice as likely to survive your next car journey in an autonomously driven Tesla than in a manually driven car.

If you decide to go by plane instead then the probability of arriving safely is extremely good because only one in every 3 million flights last year resulted in fatalities or put another way: 3.3 billion passengers were transported with the loss of 641 lives, which is a one in 5 million.  People worry about these probabilities while at the same time buying lottery tickets with a much lower probability of winning the jackpot, which is about 1 in 14 million in the UK.  In all of these cases, the probability is saying something about the frequency of occurance of these events.  We don’t know whether the plane will crash on the next flight we take so we rationalise this uncertainty by defining the frequency of flights that end in a fatal crash.  The French mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) thought about probability as a measure of our ignorance or uncertainty.  As we have come to realise the extent of our uncertainty about many things in science (see my post: ‘Electron Uncertainty‘ on July 27th, 2016) and life (see my post: ‘Unexpected bad news for turkeys‘ on November 25th, 2015), the more important the concept of probability has become.   Caputo has argued that ‘a post-modern style demands a capacity to sustain uncertainty and instability, to live with the unforeseen and unpredictable as positive conditions of the possibility of an open-ended future’.  Most of us can manage this concept when the open-ended future is a lottery jackpot but struggle with the remaining uncertainties of life, particularly when presented with new ones, such as autonomous cars.

Sources:

Bilton, N., How the media screwed up the fatal Tesla accident, Vanity Fair, July 7th, 2016

IATA Safety Report 2014

Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013.

Ball, J., How safe is air travel really? The Guardian, July 24th, 2014

Boagey, R., Who’s behind the wheel? Professional Engineering, 29(8):22-26, August 2016.

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