You are driving along on a lengthy stretch of an open highway.
Gloriously, you seem to have the roadway entirely to yourself. For miles on end, you haven’t encountered any traffic. This is a relief in comparison to the daily commute that you undertake each day when going to work in a busy downtown city area.
Now, it is just you and the expansive highway.
The overall scenery on this highway is admittedly a bit drab. Nothing much to see. There aren’t any flashy billboards or other eye-catching hallmarks. About the only manmade item is the laid-down asphalt of the highway and the painted roadway lines that seem to extend to the furthest horizon.
You begin to find yourself becoming somewhat preoccupied with the lines and lane markers of the highway. For driving purposes, you are merely having to keep your car within the lines of your lane. Your right foot is pressing down on the accelerator pedal with a constant amount of force and you are maintaining a consistent speed. Your hands are securely and fully on the steering wheel, occasionally making microscopic adjustments to ensure that the vehicle remains stridently going straight ahead on this everlasting straightaway.
Occasional bumps arise from having the tires go over a rough patch on the highway, providing an almost welcome respite from the otherwise tedium and boredom of this driving trek. When those gruff spots occur, it kind of sparks you to remember that you are driving a car. Indeed, you are driving a car at speeds exceeding 65 miles per hour and are hurdling along at a pace that doesn’t seem fast to you, but if anyone was standing by the roadside you would zoom right past them (for my coverage about the relative nature of speed perception when driving a car, see the link here).
The good news is that you are wide awake and had several cups of coffee before you got onto the highway.
You know that being sleepy while driving is a highly dangerous act. That is definitely not going to happen to you. You loathe people that try to drive while drowsy. Of course, it goes without saying that you have even worse opinions about those that try to drink and drive.
As the monotony of the driving journey starts to grab up your mind, you almost feel as though you are no longer occupying your body. It is as though your body, essentially your legs and arms, are working without you having to put any conscious thought into the matter. Your mind is floating away from the matters underway, meanwhile, your body and limbs are doing the right thing by staying glued to the driving controls.
The driving is so mesmerizing that you begin to lose a sense of time. How long have you been driving on this darned road? The lack of external stimuli such as pedestrians, other cars, bicycle riders, and the like has altered your perception of time and space. You are on a kind of highway treadmill that just seems to be endlessly running the same path over and over again.
If someone could see your face, they would probably notice a somewhat expressionless look. Your eyes have that glassy and faraway appearance. Your mind is operating on a sluggish basis and you almost have an emptiness of thought processes. There isn’t anything worthy of devoting any mental contortions toward. The highway is a simple open path that requires no particular mental gymnastics to contend with.
What is happening to you during this long and uneventful drive?
Yes, you might remember learning in a driver training class about the dangers of highway hypnosis. It used to be that newbie teenage drivers were strictly forewarned about the evils of highway hypnosis. You were told repeatedly to be on the watch for your mind going into a kind of mental trance.
This trance could be induced via driving when there are little or no roadway changes or other alluring attractors that keep your head in the game. It is patently obvious that driving in a hectic city environment you are bombarded by stimuli and your mind has to be going at its peak performance (well, we hope so, for your sake and the other nearby drivers). In contrast, driving on a lengthy mountain road, or through an endless desert, or on any prolonged straightaway is oftentimes bereft of any notable visual stimuli.
The belief is that you can become somewhat hypnotized by the roadway.
Similar to the movies and TV shows that used to showcase a person being hypnotized by watching a spiraling line that keeps going and going, the same thing is said to affect you when it is a painted line on the highway that appears to go eternally. The quietness inside the car is coupled with the dullness of the external environment, and the next thing that you know this has combined to put your mind into a sort of dulled trance.
There is an ongoing heated debate about the nature of highway hypnosis.
Does it occur?
Is it a made-up excuse?
What causes it?
Some trace the origins of the discovery of highway hypnosis to the early days of driving and the initial formulations of automobiles. There are historical accounts that suggest the matter was originally coined as road hypnotism, which eventually was renamed highway hypnosis. The highway hypnosis moniker certainly is a catchier phrasing and seems to readily roll off the tongue.
Some experts do not like the catchphrase since it incorporates the notion of hypnotism into it. For various reasons, the mentioning of being hypnotized or being the subject of hypnotism is considered misleading and potentially outright misapplied. The preferred phrasing is something akin to saying that this is a phenomenon consisting of Driving Without Awareness (DWA).
Stating that this is driving without awareness is indubitably a more reasoned way to depict the situation, but the popularity and tangy beat of exhorting about the ominous soul-sapping of highway hypnosis is pretty hard to dislodge from the public vocabulary on this intriguing topic.
For sake of discussion, please allow me to continue to use the reference of highway hypnosis, and I do so with a proper head nod and apologies to those that vehemently prefer the DWA mantra. Regardless of the naming, the overall facet is that you mentally seem to fade away from the driving task at hand.
This can create a mental time gap, whereby you cannot immediately remember how long you have been at the wheel. You likely cannot recall what you’ve seen so far while being there in the driver’s seat. It is as though your brain is no longer recording whatever you are seeing. In one ear, out the other, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek homage to the sage piece of wisdom about how we sometimes skip the act of mental processing.
People that claim to have been entranced by highway hypnosis will often insist that this did not affect whatsoever on their driving. They reluctantly agree that they might have mentally been in a tropical paradise for a few moments, but assuredly they still were driving the car. They did not remove their hands from the wheel. They did not remove their foot from the pedals.
One distinction that some take toward the immersion into highway hypnosis is that it is not the same as the mental act of driving while distracted.
A distracted driver is fully cognizant of the driving task but has switched their mental attention to something other than the driving. For example, a driver might be watching a fascinating cat video via their in-car display, which is causing their mental attention to be split between the roadway and those cute kittens that are playing with a ball of string in that endearing video.
The person driving is still mentally alert. The bad news is that they are giving short shrift to the driving task. At one moment, they are looking and thinking about the highway. The next moment, they are glancing at the cat video or repositioning the mental energies toward the cat video. This kind of mental shifting is playing out like a vigorous ping pong match. The really bad news is that if something goes awry on the highway, their attention might at that instant be on the distracting aspect, such as the cat video, and therefore they are caught utterly unawares of the impending and possibly dire driving situation.
In contrast, the purist viewpoint about highway hypnosis is that you are not distracted by anything and that you are in fact devoted to the driving task. The problem is that you are mentally disengaged from the driving task. Some would argue that they are using their subconscious to do the driving, rather than their conscious mind per se (this is open to debate).
It is as though your mind has seemingly gone into a mindless state. The barebones fundamental operation of your body and about driving the car is still occurring. This is almost happening by so-called muscle memory. It is reflexive. Your mind is not necessarily thinking about other matters. One might liken this mental condition to being in the midst of some hefty meditation and you have zoned out of the driving chore.
The difficulty too is that your mind might not be telling you that you are immersed in this trance. If you were watching a cat video, your mind might be nagging you that you are not paying attention to the roadway. You override that nagging. Despite the overriding, at least the nagging is taking place. A claimed issue for highway hypnosis is that your mind lets itself go free and doesn’t kick you in the mental butt about being more responsible to devote attention to the roadway.
Some try to argue that a lousy form of mental engagement is better than the lack of mental engagement regarding the driving task. In that sense, they would assert that driving while distracted is better than getting into the driving hypnotic state of mind. Others would counterargue that highway hypnosis is less threatening than the distracted driver.
We can add more fuel to the fire by including the drunk driver. Presumably, a drunk driver has a mental state that is totally messed up and unable to process properly the world around them. Almost everyone would likely tend to agree that a drunk driver poses a much greater threat than a distracted driver or a highway hypnotized driver. These comparisons though are problematic since there are varying degrees of each kind of mental overtaking.
Let’s agree to something that we can all seemingly concur with, namely that driving ought to be a task that has the devoted and undivided attention of a fully cognizant and expressly unencumbered mind of the human driver at the wheel.
Period, full stop.
Arguing over which of the corrupted mental states is better or worse is akin to the famous saying that this is tantamount to trying to move around the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Now that I’ve dragged you through the morass about highway hypnosis, one aspect that might have come to your mind is that this driving without awareness is not worthy of discussion since the person is still at the wheel and presumably driving the car. In essence, there is the classic “so what” that needs to be addressed.
Why does this all matter?
Because a person that is embraced by highway hypnosis, if there is such a thing, can become dull in their driving and ergo have a delayed and potentially life-ending reaction to a sudden roadway mishap.
Take for example that while on that long stretch of highway there is a sharp piece of piercing metal that perchance is laying on the roadway (ominously awaiting your tires). It is not immediately obvious to the eye. The size, shape, and color allow it to blend into the overall appearance of the highway surface.
A driver that is engulfed in highway hypnosis might have a delayed and incorrect reaction to striking that tire ripping piece of debris. Whereas a driver that was mentally engaged might react with some surprise and concern, they would at least be likely aware that they must have struck something that was on the highway surface. Their mental processing would lead them in that mental calculation, very quickly. And, as such, they would react with a pre-canned mental template that tells them to gradually slow down the car and try to safely pull off the highway.
Someone that was zoned out via highway hypnosis would presumably be shocked back into awareness by the sounds and sudden response of the vehicle. This would get them back into the game. But their mind might be at wits end about what just happened. Did they hit something? Did the car itself fall apart or have some egregious problem?
They won’t likely be able to recall where the car was before the incident. Did they miss something about the roadway? Their mind might begin to play tricks on them. Perhaps a deer entered into the highway and they were so zoned out mentally that they didn’t even see it. The deer was somehow invisible to their mind.
At this juncture, the suddenly re-engaged mind might prod the driver to do something entirely inappropriate for the situation. This could be due to the mind not having a clue about what has just taken place. As a result, some semi-random choice of emergency driving action comes to the forefront of their thinking. This can make a bad situation turn into a deathly one.
Various claimed documented cases of drivers in car accidents that said they had highway hypnosis are at times seemingly reinforced by the forensic evidence at the scene of a crash. This might include the fact that no skid marks were indicated on the highway. Had the driver been aware and mentally engaged, the assumption is that they would have immediately hit their brakes and therefore there would be skid marks.
You have to be careful when trying to employ roadway evidence to support a contention that highway hypnosis was the culprit. There is usually a multitude of viable explanations. The tie between what the roadway evidence showcases and the true mental state of the driver are somewhat tenuous and altogether usually quite speculative.
There has been an off-and-on spate of scholarly research about highway hypnosis. One focus of the inquiry is that perhaps the biomechanics of the eyes is a contributor to the road hypnotic trance. It could be that the non-movement (or minimal movement) of the eyes are generating signals to the brain that somewhat lead to the brain going into this trance zone.
The research remains ongoing and continues to seek a better understanding of what makes driving without awareness (i.e., highway hypnosis) occur and how to resolve it.
Harking back to the days of learning about highway hypnosis while in driver training, you might recall that there were several pieces of handy advice about how to try and avert this seemingly temporary and possibly deadly mental condition. One proffered action entails moving your eyes back and forth to scan the roadway. This might seem to keep your eyes engaged and correspondingly your mind engaged.
More pieces of advice include creating your own engaging stimuli. Turn on the radio and listen to something that keeps your mind active. Chew gum. Open a window of the car to get wind whisking into the interior. These are all potential ways to keep highway hypnosis at bay. That being said, there is a fine line between seeking to remain mentally engaged and yet pushing you over into the distracted driving mode.
Let’s slightly shift gears.
The future of cars consists of AI-based true self-driving cars.
There isn’t a human driver involved in a true self-driving car. Keep in mind that true self-driving cars are driven via an AI driving system. There isn’t a need for a human driver at the wheel, and nor is there a provision for a human to drive the vehicle. For my extensive and ongoing coverage of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and especially self-driving cars, see the link here.
Here’s an intriguing question that is worth pondering: Is it conceivable that AI-based true self-driving cars might somehow suffer from highway hypnosis, and if so, what can be done about this?
I’d like to first further clarify what is meant when I refer to true self-driving cars.
Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And Highway Hypnosis
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.
All occupants will be passengers.
The AI is doing the driving.
One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can.
Why is this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient?
Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet.
With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system won’t natively somehow “know” about the facets of driving. Driving and all that it entails will need to be programmed as part of the hardware and software of the self-driving car.
Let’s dive into the myriad of aspects that come to play on this topic.
First, consider what could happen if a self-driving encountered a human-driven car that was being driven by someone that had succumbed to a presumed dose of highway hypnosis.
The concern in this scenario is that the human driver might not adequately react to a roadway anomaly. Furthermore, the driver might inadvertently do something untoward during any ordinary driving task because they are mentally zoned out.
There’s not particularly anything extraordinary that the self-driving car can do about such a circumstance.
Allow me to explain.
By and large, there are no outwardly evidentiary means to ferret out whether a human driver is driving with a full semblance of mental alertness versus whether they are in an alleged mental trance. About the only clues would be that the conventional human-driven car in question might seem to be driving without any apparent reaction to the roadway status.
For example, suppose the AI driving system detects via the self-driving car sensors that there is a large boulder in the roadway up ahead. The AI driving system might begin slowing down the self-driving car, anticipating the need to come to a stop before reaching the boulder. Meanwhile, imagine that the human-driven car nearby and traveling along at a tad ahead of the self-driving car seems to be making no overt indications of slowing or intending to stop.
This could be an indicator that the human driver of that car is incurring highway hypnosis.
Of course, it could be that the driver is distracted by watching enchanting online videos of a baby gurgling and fussing while eating some scrumptious baby food. Or the driver might be drunk and just barely able to keep the car moving forward and has not yet realized that the boulder is going to be a problem. And so on.
Since any of those are real possibilities, there are no immediate means to assume that the human driver is consumed necessarily by highway hypnosis. The AI driving system could either merely wait and see what happens to the conventional car or might take some proactive action to try and alert the human driver. For example, suppose the AI driving system opts to honk the horn of the self-driving car or perhaps turns the headlights on and off, attempting to gain the attention of the human driver.
This takes us to a brief but valuable side tangent.
Most people assume that AI driving systems are being programmed to focus exclusively on the well-being of the self-driving car. That could be the case. As such, the AI would not be exploring any concerns that are bereft of any specific bearing on the outcome of efforts entailing the self-driving car per se. If the crashing of the human-driven car into the boulder would not have any distinct impact upon the self-driving car, there would presumably be no cause for the AI driving system to do anything about the predicted catastrophe.
This is a somewhat vexing and ethically open question about whether we would expect or want self-driving cars to go further and try to assist other traffic, such as nearby human-driven cars. I’ve discussed this matter at the link here. We would likely expect that other nearby human drivers would attempt to act in a good Samaritan fashion, and as such we might hope to have self-driving cars do likewise (as programmed by the AI developers to do so, not because the AI “divines” to do so).
In any case, there isn’t much more to be fruitfully said about the use case of a human driver in the hypnotic highway haze and the overarching role of a nearby self-driving car. Generally, the AI driving system needs to be observing other nearby cars always and the AI programming needs to try and anticipate what those other cars are going to do, especially when those actions pertain to the driving of the self-driving car.
Moving on, we get the crux of this matter.
If you believe that there is such a thing as highway hypnosis and that it can overtake the mental acumen of human drivers, we can give some consideration to the curious possibility that AI driving systems might suffer the same potential fate.
I’d like to emphasize that one big problem with trying to make such a claim or connection is that it tends to imply that the AI driving system is sentient.
As mentioned earlier, none of today’s AI driving systems are sentient. I would also easily win a wager that we won’t have such AI in any near-term future and unlikely in any later-term future. I am not asserting that we will never have sentient AI, which some would argue is in fact never going to happen. I’ll settle for now on the simpler notion that sentient AI is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.
Let’s leave things at that for the moment.
Okay, if the AI isn’t sentient, we would seem on the safe theoretical ground to proclaim that the AI driving system will decidedly not become a victim of highway hypnosis.
You see, we can be clear-cut about the undeniable aspect that the AI driving system does not have eyeballs (not now). It has video cameras and other sensors such as radar, LIDAR, and the like, but it doesn’t have human eyes. Plus, AI does not have a brain. AI of today has various computer processors and other electronic circuitry, which is assuredly not a brain and should not be falsely compared to a human brain.
Here’s why that is significant.
For those that are sticklers about the meaning of highway hypnosis, they would fervently say that to experience highway hypnosis you must have human eyes, a human brain, and your eyes and brain are the elements that would become ostensibly hypnotized by the highway driving. We’ve just stated that AI driving systems aren’t composed in that manner and therefore strictly speaking could not be labeled as susceptible to highway hypnosis.
Wait for a second, let’s be a bit more flexible about this.
If you are willing to agree that highway hypnosis is more so about driving without awareness, and if we are willing to also define awareness in a more logically pliable fashion (even in the absence of sentience), we can constructively take a gander at seeing how this all applies to self-driving cars.
Shall we do so?
Imagine that a self-driving car is driving down a deserted highway. There aren’t any other cars. There isn’t anything to speak of, just lots of wide-open terrain that is relatively nondescript and unremarkable.
The AI driving system is programmed to keep track of objects that are in the nearby driving scene. An internal list is being kept by the program. A software developer established the list such that it can contain up to a thousand detected objects at any point in time. Once an object is first detected, it is added to the list. When the object is no longer detectable, such as having passed a car that is now far behind the self-driving car and no longer within visual distance, the object is removed from the list.
Turns out, for every defined snippet of time, if there aren’t any detected objects, the program places a marker of “nothing detected” into the list.
The programmer never envisioned a scenario in which the self-driving car would be bereft of nearby objects for any substantive length of time. This seemed unimaginable, especially since the AI driving system was initially devised to handle inner-city driving.
Unfortunately, this is where things go awry on the monotonous long drive. After several hours of this mundane driving, the object list ends up with a thousand posted instances of “nothing detected” and the list now generates a buffer overflow error. But the rest of the AI system has no provision for dealing with the buffer overflow since it was not anticipated as a possibility.
The net result is that the AI driving system is still driving the self-driving car, but it no longer is actively tracking detected objects. Until a new object is detected, which will then cause a flush of the now exceeded list, the software is essentially in a “trance” and seemingly zoned out.
In short, the program code has regrettably fallen into the likes of a type of highway hypnosis due to a bug or error that resides in the AI driving system.
Some smarmy AI developers might insist that this notion of such a bug or error being in the AI driving system code is utterly impossible and would never occur.
If you really think that, it is a bit unnerving. I’d strongly suggest that those of you having such a dogmatic faith in the purity of development for real-time systems as being altogether perfect and absent of any gotchas ought to see my analysis of the recent snafu in the code used for the NASA Mars helicopter known as Ingenuity, see the link here.
As an eye-opener for those that don’t realize it, there are going to be bugs and errors in AI driving systems, despite whatever some pundits or vendors might say.
Sorry to burst your bubble.
Though testing and simulation can do a lot to find them beforehand, there is nonetheless a bona fide and an altogether likely chance that some will still exist inside fielded self-driving cars. The key will be how good the error handling and contingency provisions are in the AI driving system to cope when those bugs rise up and do their roguish handiwork.
Back to the matter of highway hypnosis.
I would not want anyone to go around and assert categorically that AI-based self-driving cars are going to have highway hypnosis. Doing so is a slippery slope toward anthropomorphizing AI. Let’s just say that there are possibilities of AI driving systems to get into untoward states of processing, for which we could characterize this as somewhat akin to driving without the proper devoted and active attention to the driving task.
And whatever you do, please stay in the proper mental zone when driving and make sure to heave-ho any taint of harmfully hideous highway hulking hypnosis.