Self-Driving Cars – Buckle Your Seatbelts

Recently I responded to an essay suggesting that technological progress is juddering to a halt. Its author pointed to airplanes, hardly changed in decades.

UnknownWell, buckle your seatbelts, because transportation is about to be revolutionized – not in the air but on the ground, with the advent of driverless cars – sooner than seemed possible only a short time ago.

Driving safely on a busy street is actually a fiendishly complex challenge. But computers, with a form of artificial intelligence, can now master it. Better than you or me – far better. Google’s experimental self-driving cars have logged 1.8 million miles, with only a few minor accidents (not their fault) and no injuries.

Unknown-1Inevitably, there will be a first person killed by a self-driving car, provoking a great moral panic, and calls for banning the technology. While of course 30,000 Americans are killed annually by human-driven cars. Computer-driven ones won’t speed, drive drunk or distracted or sleepy or aggressively, nor make dumb mistakes, so they’ll cut highway carnage almost to zero. Eventually there will be calls to ban human drivers.

The Economist recently peered into the driverless future, and it’s a dramatic picture. Start with the fact that currently we all own our own cars, one of our biggest investments, yet on average they sit idle 96% of the time. That will look increasingly senseless (at least in urban areas) as Uber-type ride-summoning services become more ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap – because the biggest cost factor – driver compensation – will evaporate (along with a lot of driver jobs).

So car ownership will plummet. And as that 96% idleness rate goes way down, so will the number of cars society needs. The Economist estimated there’ll be up to 90% fewer around. (Look out, GM and Ford.) The eternal problem of parking will vanish, and indeed, a lot of the acreage devoted today to parking will be freed up for other functions. Unknown-2More efficient vehicle use will also mean fewer cars on the roads at any one time, which, together with trans-human reaction times and other driving capabilities, will make for smoother traffic flows and speedier trips. Traffic congestion will be a thing of the past. A study has estimated that 90% use of driverless cars would be equivalent to doubling road capacity.

Hence less road construction costs. Also, no more car insurance. No more tickets, so cops can do other things, like actually fighting crime. Children, the blind, the frail, could all ride. And today’s zillion hours spent behind the wheel can be devoted (safely!) to other activities too. Another study calculates America’s resulting productivity gain at over $1 trillion annually.

Easier and faster commutes can enable cities to spread out more (suck it up, James Howard Kunstler*). And The Economist didn’t even mention that significantly fewer cars utilized more efficiently should substantially cut fuel consumption and pollution, with an obvious panoply of benefits (suck it up more, Kunstler**).

imagesWhile misanthropes like him decry the automobile as a societal and environmental abomination, in fact its invention was a giant boon for human values. It gave masses of ordinary people newfound mobility, independence, and empowerment. Our love affair with the car hasn’t been irrational. Driverlessness will carry the paradigm to a whole new level, making the benefits even larger and more widely available, while eliminating many of the costs and downsides (notably all that injury and death).

In history’s long view, today’s widespread private car ownership (and often fetishization) will be seen as a brief and somewhat strange transitional interlude, between use of horses, and driverless vehicles.

images-1* Author of The Geography of Nowhere, vilifying suburban sprawl.

** He also has foreseen no technological remedy for our supposed “oil addiction.”

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9 Responses to “Self-Driving Cars – Buckle Your Seatbelts”

  1. Lesley Elizabeth Says:

    Great article. I hope I live to see the future predicted here. I’m a bit of an anomaly in culture in that I’ve never had a “love affair” with cars. I think our road ways are primitively designed (with respect to safety) and that we’ve created a car-dependent culture that reduces quality of life.

    I’m not sure how that makes me a misanthrope though, as I prefer the safety and well-being of people to car-dependency, but I will certainly concede cars offer convenience and enhanced mobility.

    The balanced, safer future predicted here would be a dream come true for me. Great piece!

    Lesley

  2. DAN FAREK Says:

    HI FRANK:
    I AM 75 YEARS OLD! THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL THAT I WOULD TRUST A SELF-DRIVE CAR! I USE EL ECTRONIC DEVICES EVERYDAY. AMAZING HOW OFTEN THE GO WRONG!!!
    I KNOW, WE HAVE HUMAN DRIVERS MAKING FATAL MISTAKES
    EVERYDAY!!!!
    WITH SELF-DRIVE CARS DEPENDING ON COMPUTERS, JUST THINK OF THE DEATH RATE IF THE AR AH HACKERS GET INVOLVED!
    NO THANKS,
    DAN FAREK

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Lesley: Thanks. Cars don’t reduce quality of life. The advent of cars that ordinary people could buy, early in the 20th century, was a humongous boon to them, greatly opening their horizons. Nothing is ever perfect and of course there are downsides. Self-driving cars would make things much better.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Dan, Death rate will go from about 30,000 annually to nearly zero.

  5. jmrussell Says:

    I’m ready for driverless cars. I drive only from necessity and believe me, they’re safer than having me on the roads.

  6. Clemens P. Suter Says:

    Great article; thought provoking. The issue that I see is that indeed cars stand idly by 95% of the time, but not during rush hour. so the streets will remain full, as long as carsharing remains unpopular, and the carparks will also be needed, as long as everybody goes shopping at the same time, and with their own car. So I am not sure that the internet of things will actually reduce the usage of machines/cars, or increase the willingness of people to share vehicles. It will have a dramatic effect on traffic flow (reduction of congestion), energy consumption (will go down), on employment (who needs truck drivers?) and on the number of accidents (as you correctly point out).

  7. Clemens P. Suter Says:

    I’M NOT AS WORRIED AS YOU ARE, DAN!

  8. Paul Landsberg Says:

    Frank, so where do you think we will see the first adoption of driverless vehicles? North America? South? Asia? Europe?

    I fear that with our entrenched crony capitalism, rampant litigation, general worship at the altar of entrenched interests, and the mythology built around cars, we (the USA) will not be the first movers.

    Your guess?

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Paul, the research work is really all being done in USA, that is where it will begin to show up on the street.

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