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Freeway Phobia Seriously Scares Some Human Drivers Which Possibly Can Startle AI Self-Driving Cars Too

The joys of riding in a car.

When I was a youngster, my grandparents delighted in taking me for a trek in their car, especially on the weekends. They would come to visit during the summers. A car ride included rolling down the windows of the vehicle and we would all relish the rushing cool breeze on those hot and muggy summer days as we drove leisurely along.

Since I wasn’t old enough to drive, they instead did all the driving activity. I did though have a hand in where we went. Let’s go to the store, I would clamor. Let’s drive past the school ground and wave at anyone there. Let’s go driving around the local park and see all the trees and the ducks in the pond.

There was one place that they would not go. No matter how often I asked, no matter how hard I implored them. They were defiant and professed utter and outright refusal.

They would not drive on the freeway.

It turns out that they overtly and vehemently were opposed to driving on the freeway. Any freeway. All freeways.

To avoid getting onto a freeway, they were willing to drive on local roads and even out-of-the-way highways, despite the journey taking sometimes twice as long. The moment that I saw an onramp to the freeway, I would enthusiastically point at it and urge vociferously that we try going that way. Meanwhile, they would quietly dismiss my exhortations and continue to stridently stay off the freeway entirely.

I wasn’t exactly sure at the time why they were so reticent about using the freeways.

Later on, there was speculation that they did not like the fast speeds involved. This was a time period when the freeways were wide open (if you can wildly imagine that possibility). Any cars that traversed the freeway were the equivalent of taking a spaceship at lightspeed. Just like the sci-fi movies of that era, you could seemingly get from planet to planet by jumping into lightspeed or hyperdrive via the use of the multi-lane super-duper fast freeway.


But not for my grandma and grandpa.


They were fine without the freeways. Take your time, they would sagely say. Be safer and stick to what works, namely anything and everything other than the freeways. You would need to have your head examined if you opted to take a freeway to get to wherever you wanted to go.

I admit then when I finally reached the age to start driving, their recalcitrant resistance and stern hesitation about using freeways initially carried into my mind and my driving efforts. Here’s a taste of what happened.

My driver training class included how to drive on the freeways. We used to have several students in our school-provided training car and we would go driving around together, with the instructor in the front passenger seat, of course. Numerous trips included practicing driving on the freeways.

When it came to my turn to be sitting behind the wheel, I would look at the instructor with a pained expression when told to proceed onto a freeway. Since a sour look wasn’t sufficient, I then pointed out that there really was no need to drive on the freeway since we were going to only go a few miles and then immediately get off at the next available exit.

What a dumb trip, I asserted. Let’s practice some more U-turns and parallel parking, I politely pleaded.

This instructor was no fool. It was obvious that I was seeking to avoid learning about freeways and how to best traverse them. Not only did he have me get onto the freeway, but it also became a kind of focus of his. Whenever I got to be in the driver’s seat, he would make an explicit point of mentioning that it was probably about time that we got some more freeway driving under our belts.

What is somewhat ironic or at least notable is that I eventually for my working efforts ended up driving on the freeways each workday, typically commuting to an office that took a couple of hours per day of back and forth on the freeways. Eventually, driving on freeways seemed like an old hat. This gradually encompassed taking freeways when there was little advantage in doing so. I guess I had completely gone freeway bonkers or freeway favoring, something like that.

There is the other end of that spectrum too.

Freeway phobia.

It is a real thing.

Some people have a phobia associated with driving on a freeway. Do not confound that predilection with necessarily having a phobia of driving. In other words, someone can be perfectly fine with driving, and yet nonetheless have a phobia about specifically driving on freeways.

Before we dig into the phobia of driving on freeways, you might be familiar with other kinds of phobias and we can consider them as a suitable warm-up on this topic.

Most people have heard about arachnophobia, a fear of spiders and other arachnids. Something kind of similar is ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes. You might remember the fictional character Indiana Jones famously having a fear of snakes. Gosh, there have even been snakes on a plane, which certainly seems to attest to the basis for disliking and dreading snakes.

The reason I liken the fear of spiders with the fear of snakes is due to those both involving fear of animals. I think we can all sympathize with fearing certain types of animals, especially ones that seem evil or at least have been portrayed that way in movies and TV shows.

Here’s another well-known phobia, acrophobia.

That’s the fear of heights.

This is abundantly another type of fear that we can all sympathize with. I dare say that nearly everyone has had a moment of standing at the top of a mighty cliff or looking over the thin railing of a tall building and experienced a semblance of height trepidation. Those social media videos of people willingly jumping off tall pinnacles while wearing the flimsiest of parachutes or minuscule flying gear are enough to give the rest of us the willies.

Note that acrophobia is not an animal-based phobia. You could suggest that it is a situational form of a phobia that encompasses being up high. Furthermore, the heights involved are likely subjectively assessed. One person’s sense of a sharp height might seem like nothing notable by someone else. If you’ve ever seen the infamous and altogether classic movie Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, you know what I mean.

Do you know what this phobia entails: Aerophobia or pteromerhanophobia?

You might have known or made an educated guess that it is the fear of flying. This used to be a pretty big topic. Airlines plentifully provided free classes to help people to overcome aerophobia. I realize that seems somewhat absurd by today’s standards. In any case, we certainly have a lot of trouble nowadays with rambunctious people while on commercial flights, though this seemingly has little to do with having aerophobia.

Since we are talking about flying, this brings up another type of situational-related phobia. Aerophobia encompasses the act of transit while in the air. I’m betting that you might not realize there is something similar for what is construed as ground-based traveling.

Amaxophobia or motorphobia.

Generally, that’s a phobia about either riding in or driving a motorized vehicle such as a car. Some would focus on the driving aspects and tend to downplay the qualms of those that exhibit the phobia while merely riding inside a vehicle. Others assert that both possibilities are to be given equal weight.

There are indeed contrasting theories about the riding versus driving-related phobia aspects. For example, you might make the argument that a passenger is experiencing a loss of control over their destiny when riding inside a car. The driver is the one that is in control. As such, part of the fear of the rider variant is that they lack control of the vehicle.

In terms of the driver aspects, some drivers seem to exhibit a phobia only when particular driving circumstances arise. Driving into a tunnel is one prime example. This might be explained by underscoring that you don’t know what might be inside the tunnel. Unlike driving on open roadways, the tunnel offers a foreboding possibility of ill will.

To be clear about this, a momentary expression of concern or dismay is not really what conventionally constitutes a phobia per se. Though people can have brief episodes, the traditional view about expressive phobia is that it is persistent and carries substantive fear and anxiety. Some people have an intense and outwardly demonstrative physiological and mental reaction and the phobia can be severely debilitating. There is a slew of informative research and medical science that you can explore if you are further interested in the details of phobias and including the motorphobia instance.

For our purposes here, consider what could happen if someone does have a phobia or pronounced fear of riding in a car or a fear of driving a car.

A driver that gets behind the wheel and is filled with distressing levels of fear and anxiety is not what we might seek to have taking place on our public roadways. The person could react in adverse ways, doing so while commanding a multi-ton vehicle that can bring about costly damages or possibly cause life-or-death consequences.

You might say that the easy solution is to simply not have the person ever drive a car. Though that does exist as a possibility, it also can dramatically undercut one’s existence. In our society, we often relate the notion of being independent as being able to drive a car. Someone that cannot drive a car has historically been somewhat stinted, though in more recent times this attitude has changed, see my elaboration at this link here.

It might seem that the person that has a phobia about riding in a car is less worrisome to the rest of us since they are presumably not going to put themselves in the driver’s seat. In that sense, they might react adversely if inside a car, but at least they are not at the driving controls. Of course, the concern is that the rider might take disruptive actions that could adversely affect the driver. A rider that starts reacting frantically can cause a driver to go awry.

What about that freeway phobia, you might be wondering?

Some drivers will steadfastly not drive on a freeway or exhibit phobia responses while driving on a freeway.

Things would seem somewhat safer if the person opted to not go on a freeway, especially if we are to assume that they are generally comfortable in driving while off the freeway. Such a driver could seemingly have an uneventful driving history by simply refraining from getting onto a freeway. There are hardly any situations where the only means to get from point A to point B requires the use of a freeway. It might be more convenient to do so, and take less time or entail shorter driving distances, but rarely the only way to proceed (exceptions do apply).

For those people that have a phobia associated with riding in a car but that is only manifested when the car is on a freeway, well, that might be somewhat tolerable. In theory, they would be comfortable riding in a car that goes on regular streets and perhaps even highways. They just need to make sure that the driver doesn’t take any freeways. This would seem generally like a feasible way to be a rider, assuming that you could either direct a driver in that manner or would know beforehand which rides to avoid because they are going to take a freeway.

Getting back to my grandparents, I am still to this day unclear as to whether they had such a phobia. And if they did, it is unclear too as to whether it was driving oriented or riding oriented, or both, when it came to going onto the freeways.

I remember at the time that some relatives said they had freeway phobia, while others preferred to use the expression freeway fright. Speculation was that they had perhaps experienced a jack-knifed truck or some unimaginably nightmarish car crash on a freeway, and therefore vowed to never get onto a freeway again.

One leading theory about this kind of phobia is that it might be tied to agoraphobia. That’s the fear of being trapped and having no ready means of escape.

The logic is that when you get onto a freeway, you are somewhat locked into the roadway activities and have no immediate form of escape. With a normal street or avenue, you can easily see that there is a right turn or left turn ahead to get you off that particular pathway. On a highway, you usually can pull over or somehow relatively quickly get off the highway. For freeways, there is usually a semblance of being stuck on the freeway until that next exit perchance is neared.

I’m guessing you’ve had that type of experience, somewhat.

I remember one time when my children were toddlers and we were on the freeway, driving to someplace fun, I’m sure, and they just had to suddenly go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, the traffic was bumper to bumper and crawling at a snail’s pace. The next available exit was about two miles ahead, and yet it seemed like it was thousands of miles away. We moved at a glacial speed, meanwhile, the kids were hollering for relief and clamoring for me to find the nearest restroom. For more about the conundrum of driving a car and dealing with urgent bathroom needs, see my discussion at this link here.

The gist of that scenario is that you are somewhat locked into place while on most freeways. The next exit is sometimes a long way away. Recall those famous signs by the side of the freeway that caution you that the next gas station is some distance ahead. I think that all of us can understand that feeling of being trapped while on a freeway.

We’ve been ruminating quite a bit about what can happen if a driver of a car has a freeway phobia, and likewise covering the ridership aspects too.

Consider that 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: How might car-related phobias arise in an era of AI-based true self-driving cars?

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 Those Pertinent Phobias

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.

For those people that have a freeway driving phobia, the advent of self-driving cars should alleviate their concerns, hopefully so. The AI driving system will be doing the driving for them. Thus, whatever qualms they have about doing driving should presumably be washed away. Simply stated, they won’t need to be in the driver’s seat anymore.

That being said, it is imaginable that the freeway driving phobia could transform to one of having pronounced anxiety and fear about the AI driving system doing the driving on the freeway. We don’t know if that will occur. In theory, too, it could be that only some people incur that realm of a phobia if any at all.

Another twist is the possibility that somebody that did not previously have a phobia about driving on the freeways might somehow garner such a phobia due to realizing that self-driving cars are driving on the freeways with them. In essence, similar in some respects perhaps to reluctance to drive into a tunnel, it could be that the seemingly mysterious nature of self-driving cars could cause someone to react negatively accordingly. Or something else about self-driving cars leads to that realization.

What about the phobia of riding in a self-driving car while on a freeway?

Sure, that could certainly be a possibility.

If someone already has that particular phobia for conventional human-driven cars, it seems somewhat unlikely that replacing the human driver with an AI driving system will necessarily relieve the rider of their corresponding anxiety and fear. But, perhaps it might alleviate those severe qualms in some cases, thus we should consider the notion that having an AI driving system in lieu of a human driver might help to cope with their otherwise incurred phobia.

And meanwhile, one supposes that some people might newly develop such anxiety by the aspect that the self-driving car is explicitly being driven by an AI driving system.

All told, the point being that we have the potential of numerous changes in status about freeway phobia by introducing self-driving cars into the calculus. In some cases, the self-driving cars will aid in mitigating the phobia, while in other cases it is conceivable that the use of self-driving cars will stoke or provoke a phobia, possibly giving rise to new variants.

Specifically, a self-driving car phobia of one kind or another.

Time will tell.

Keep in mind that things are still quite early on in the emergence of AI self-driving cars and so we don’t yet have much mileage to consider what will or will not transpire. People’s reactions to self-driving cars are relatively muted right now. Once self-driving cars are roaming on our highways and byways and going down your neighborhood streets, we’ll need to see how people react.

The reactions that we normally anticipate are about being an outside observer and watching self-driving cars traversing our communities. The other less often discussed aspect is how people will react by being a rider inside a self-driving car.

Returning to the earlier point about having control as a human driver, this is something that some human drivers are not going to willingly give up to an AI driving system. There are already some that have indicated you will only take away their driving when you have pried their cold dead hands from the wheel of the car.

The efforts so far of making use of self-driving cars are somewhat skewed and not especially fruitful for exploring these heady topics.

We have so few self-driving cars being tried out on our public roadways that the odds are we won’t yet encounter those people that might have a phobia related to self-driving cars. Essentially, right now, the people voluntarily choosing to experience using a self-driving car are doing so, and thus they are pre-selecting themselves as presumably avidly preferring to go in a self-driving car.

When self-driving cars are widely prevalent, how people will respond is up in the air, as one might say.


Suppose that there are people that won’t ride in a self-driving car that goes onto a freeway.

What then?

Well, the AI driving system could be programmed to take into account such a preference of not using the freeway. This would be relatively easy to attain. The rider would indicate they don’t want the self-driving car to take any freeways. The AI driving system would plot out a navigational path accordingly.

There would probably need to be clear-cut communication about this. I say that because the trek might end up taking longer or possibly cost more than if the freeway was an allowed means of transit. A person might discover that someone else took the same ride as they did, at least in terms of going from point A to point B, and yet the cost and time were much lower for that other person. This might suggest something duplicitous has taken place, yet it might simply be due to the wishes of the passenger that stated no freeways were to be utilized.

This interestingly brings up an intriguing offshoot of this matter about avoiding freeways.

Before I jump into that topic, realize that we are going to have a mixture of both human-driven cars and self-driving cars on our roadways for a long time to come. We will not suddenly overnight replace all convention human-driven cars with self-driving cars. In the United States alone, there are about 250 million conventional cars and they aren’t simply going to be tossed onto the junk heap on a whim.

Here’s where I am headed on this.

Suppose that self-driving cars are actively using the freeways. In theory, AI driving systems should be especially adept at driving on freeways. There are a lot fewer moving objects to be dealt with, particularly erratic ones such as jaywalking pedestrians.

What we need to though take into account is how human drivers are going to react to self-driving cars that are on the freeways with them. I’ve previously pointed out that some human drivers are already bullying self-driving cars, see my discussion at this link here.

If the AI driving system begins to pick up on a pattern that human drivers are on edge when self-driving cars are on the freeways, it is possible that the AI driving systems might start to eschew driving on freeways. This is a simple computational pattern matching aspect and has nothing to do with sentience.

In short, if each time a self-driving car gets onto a freeway there is a heightened amount of human-driven cars that seem to swerve toward, rush up upon, and otherwise seemingly endanger impacting with the self-driving car, it is a pattern that would readily be detected. In that case, the AI driving system might calculate that it is safer to stay off the freeways, if possible.

I would expect that the fleet operator would discern that this is taking place. At that juncture, the question would arise as to what to do about it. Should self-driving cars generally stay off the freeways or not in those circumstances?

You can bet that there would be a backlash against human drivers for their having fostered this kind of thorny situation.

Some might even falsely try to claim that self-driving cars have derived a presumed freeway phobia or freeway fright about driving on the freeways.  That is assuredly not a proper characterization. As mentioned earlier, we need to avoid anthropomorphizing AI.

For those of you that relish driving on freeways, you might want to consider self-driving cars as a helper rather than a hindrance. By and large, AI driving systems aren’t going to be programmed to do the kinds of a daredevil and road rage acts that human drivers do.

We can be thankful for that and perhaps worry about other things in life, such as having a phobia about phobias.

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