Baby You Can Drive My Car

At PrawfsBlawgTracy Hresko Pearl makes a bold prediction: fully driverless cars are coming to U.S. roads, and they’ll be arriving much sooner than you might think: probably within five years. There remains a laundry list of technical problems that need to be sorted out, not the least of which is the assurance that the computer doing the driving doesn’t crash. There are moral issues to be decided, such as the Trolley Problem, or who found the parking space first.

But assuming, arguendo, technology can figure out a way to get past its problems, including the fact that cars aren’t iPhones, meant to be thrown away every two years when shinier new hardware comes out, or what to do with the hundreds of thousands of displaced workers who can’t buy a driverless car because they have no jobs, there remains an additional problem.

As the conversation wound down, however, he noted that, despite everything I had said, he would always love driving.  He asked whether, once fully driverless cars are widely available, he would still be able to drive his own car.  I quickly reassured him he would always be able to do so, but as we parted ways, I questioned what I had just told him.  If autonomous vehicle advocates are correct about the dramatic safety gains fully driverless cars stand to offer, might the government eventually outlaw human-driven cars on public roads?

To the extent the introduction of driverless cars reflects an overarching concern for safety and efficiency, because everybody really wants to sit in a car driven at speeds that would make grandma smile, the sacrifice would be visceral. We would be reduced to mediocrity in the name of safety.

There is no way to achieve the level of safety and efficiency that justifies the acceptance of driverless cars if there was a mix of human drivers and driverless cars on the road. People would screw it all up, because we’re not computers and we don’t make the same decisions that an algorithm would dictate. We zig when the smarter move would be to zag. We’re unpredictable. We’re irresponsible in our choices at times. It’s part of our charm.

The more I research and write about this topic, the more I’m convinced that (eventually) the government both will and should.  After over a hundred years of human-driven motor vehicles on U.S. roads, the data is clear and abundant: taken as a whole, human beings are pretty terrible drivers.

Terrible would be an overstatement. Given the number of cars/miles driven, we do pretty darn well staying alive. But not as good as driverless cars, perhaps, and if it’s safety above all else, people would be the fly in the silicon.

[A]s the technology improves (and human driving presumably doesn’t), I think the answers to those decisions will become fairly clear.  The question is whether public acceptance of these new technologies will keep pace with their development.  Will members of the public embrace their new motor vehicle robot overlords and the safety benefits they offer or, forty years from now, will there be a protester standing on the steps of the Capitol, holding up a steering wheel and proclaiming, “From my cold dead hands”?  And, with driving-related fatalities being what they’ve been, might members of the opposing movement respond, “Exactly”?

Driving is fun. Some cars are sold, and bought, based solely on their utility, but many of us drive cars that are fun to drive, that have far less to do with transportation, getting from here to there, but are ways to enjoy our lives, whether as a reflection of our personalities or to enjoy the thrill of a twisting mountain road driven a bit faster than engineers would like.

Are we willing to give up the pleasures of real life in exchange for safety? Are we all on board with K cars that suck all the fun out of the human driving experience?

I have a 1964 Austin Healey BJ8, and there is (trust me on this) nothing better after a hard day of work than jumping into the seatbeltless cockpit and winding through the gears, watching the tach hit redline.


On the scale of safety, it’s not as bad as it should be, as most other drivers notice it on the road and give it some breathing room. That said, it has slightly less than zero safety features. Every time I drive through a “click it or ticket” roadblock, I laugh. So do the cops. A lot of cops have old cars too, though mostly muscle cars rather than classic little Brits.

What we gain in safety we will lose in experience. The human experience. While anyone who has lost a loved one in a car accident will likely calmly explain that my enjoyment isn’t worth the life of their loved one, and I would not disagree with that premise, the achievement of perfect safety, to the extent it’s possible, comes at a price. The human experience will be reduced to bubble wrap, as eliminating risk simultaneously eliminates the pleasure of the experience giving rise to risk.

Cars have been an integral part of American culture, the human real life experience, for a very long time. Are we ready to give it up? Are we willing to lose the thrill of driving a Healey for the benefit of improving the likelihood of arriving at our destination unscathed? We might want both, but the risk eliminated by driverless cars is part of what makes us alive.

Since much of life has already been subsumed in watching it happen on your iPhone screen, where our human interactions are conducted by emoji and love blossoms when someone gives you a retwit, do we really want cars to go the same way?

36 thoughts on “Baby You Can Drive My Car

  1. st

    Driverless cars will have to prove their superior safety performance in an environment initially dominated by human drivers. They will have to avoid collisions with less than perfect human drivers or the safety benefits will not materialize. That will reduce the case for going all-robot to imposing on the holdouts “for their own good.”

    Today’s robot cars achieve safety by going slow, and while the tech may improve, the physics that makes lower speeds safer will never change. Robot cars are likely to be slow for a long time.

    We faced a similar choice when the federal government decreed a 55 MPH speed limit in the name of energy efficiency, kept it in the name of safety. The safety benefits were disputed but the widespread contempt for that law is not. People voted with their their lead feet against claimed safety benefits. Perhaps they will again.

  2. Brian U

    The mix of driven and driverless will be unworkable. Ultimately, driverless cars will need to be segregated from the general public, for exactly the reasons you put forth. I foresee a future where certain roads (Interstates for example) will be required to be driverless, some (many/most?) local roads will be human driven. Heinlein showed how this could work in “Methuselah’s Children”

    1. Agammamon

      I don’t think relying on a fictional portrayal from 50+ years ago – before driverless cars could have been conceived as anything other than ‘magic’ – is a strong argument for the need to segregate.

      And its not exactly a unique argument either – we have roads and sidewalks to segregate very different forms of transportation.

      In any case, I’m with st – autonomous vehicles will be rolled out alongside manned and will have to learn to operate in that environment. As such, while its *very* likely the government will at some point lean towards a ban on manned vehicles (pushed by activists), there will be no real safety reason to do so.

      OTOH – while there will always be a few of us that enjoy manual driving (or motorcycle riding in my case), for the vast majority of people for the vast majority of their time, driving is a chore. 30-40 minute commute to work when you could be getting a short nap, put on your makeup, have breakfast, check email – the stuff people are doing right now!

      So I think the hardcore ‘from my cold dead hands’ guys might be short on the ground when that push to ban comes around anyway.

  3. jaf005

    Lots to consider in this post.
    Driving is fun, cars are fun, one of the best family experiences in my life was when my brother, father and I bought 2 1967 Mustang Coupes (each one had significant pros and cons) and created one fantastically fun car to drive.

    The one takeaway I’ve been contemplating is how the government will mandate that self driving cars are no longer acceptable, Given my age and experience, I think we are at least a generation away from totally eliminating self driving cars, but I can absolutely see a time in the near future where specific lanes on a highway are reserved for self driving cars or where new highways are built exclusively for them.

    I still can’t even fathom taking my hands off the wheel.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Assuming, arguendo, that driverless cars really are safer — that only happens if they are good at reasoning several moves ahead, which means your Healy will still be OK to drive. It would be a very brittle and unsafe AI (and easily hackable to our detriment, too) that relied too heavily on all the other AIs being sane and benign and properly communicative.

    Humans are much more predictable than we like to think, and slow thinkers to boot — in some cases an AI will probably understand your driving intentions before your conscious thought has fully formed.

    Expect AIs to notice and honk at cellphone-induced erratic driving much more quickly than humans (and maybe take pictures snd video to give to the cops), rendering driving even more pleasurable if you’re actually paying attention, because people who just want to look at cat pictures will eventually give up and buy an intelligent car.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      Of course, though, then there’s the as applied version of the trolley problem — driving humans will be ranked as more expendable than the ones who capitulate to the AI, because they have shown themselves, a priori to be selfish, caring more for their own pleasure than the safety of the rest of us.

  5. delurking

    There are already parallels. Every time a train accident happens because of operator error, the question is “why hasn’t this particular train been automated yet, lots of others are?” Airplanes are becoming more and more automated, with all new ones being aerodynamically unstable in the name of efficiency, and therefore requiring automated control even in “manual” flight. All new planes can fly and land themselves, and often do. So, the writing is on the wall. Automation in these other areas came slowly, piece by piece. There is no reason to think its introduction to cars will be different. So, I suspect it will be a very long time (i.e. 50 years or more) before government actually bans human drivers from public roads, both because of economic and political considerations (i.e., crotchety old guys who drive their Austin Healeys to the polling places).

    1. Jyjon

      Speaking of automation in travel and airplanes. There is an interesting article in The Guardian called ‘Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster’ that argues for less automation.

      You truly are a fool if you think computers can think better than and make better decisions than a human can.

      1. delurking

        “You truly are a fool if you think computers can think better than and make better decisions than a human can.”

        Please. This is the sort of pithy stupidity that says nothing while being rude. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, the bleating of people who won’t look at facts notwithstanding. The rise in aircraft automation is very strongly correlated with a rise in air travel safety. If you are going to argue that air travel safety is a nonmonotonic function of degree of automation, and that today’s level of automation has passed the maximum safety achievable, you’ll have to provide some evidence both of the nonmonotonicity of the function and of the location of the maximum. The fact that the failure modes in automated systems are different from the failure modes of manual systems is not surprising at all, so there will always be situations where a different system would have resulted in a different outcome. That is of little relevance to the overall goal of improving net safety.

    2. Boffin

      It’s an old joke by now, but…

      The cockpit of the future will have two seats, for a pilot and a dog. The dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he touches anything.

      The pilot’s job is to feed the dog.

  6. macktheripper

    Do they have self driving motorcycles in our future?
    I ride my Harley as much as my Ford truck, will I be force to ride in a lead sled ground mobile?
    Will the cops also be forced to use these slow as flip-flops in the mud vehicles?
    All car chases will be as exciting as the OJ chase then.

    1. Agammamon

      The cops will, of course, be exempted. Including retired LEO’s. If they get to carry guns where other civilians can’t and get to ignore magazine limits, they’ll get to ignore driving restrictions.

      As for chases – then it becomes a matter of calling in and having the local speed limit dropped to 5 MPH and then broadcasting that to all the cars in the vicinity.

  7. Paleo

    You’d think that for safety reasons that the cars will be by law programmed to drive the posted limit and no faster. And no more (or a lot less) red light running, turning without signals, illegal lane changes, etc.

    That’s going to dry up an important revenue source for lots of local governments.

    And how will they justify pretext stops?

    1. Patrick Maupin

      And how will they justify pretext stops?

      The olfactory sensors in the car, of course. The car can be automatically redirected to the nearest donut shop.

  8. Wilbur

    Driverless cars could be a boon for the elderly whose DL is revoked due to their advanced age, and for those otherwise physically unable to drive. It could greatly improve the quality of their lives.

    A bane for the rest of us.

  9. junior

    I can’t see the Automobile Insurance Industry being too keen on giving up an near captive audience – unless there is more to made out of requiring Tesla and the like to insure their products against collisions. The five year test for autonomous vehicles probably fails on the edge cases – drive at night along the 720 in the rain or snow through downtown Montreal with lane closures, new pavement without lane markings etc, etc.

  10. Keith

    There are moral issues to be decided

    As long as humans are programming the AI, humans will be “driving”.

    Which model would you prefer, sir?
    I’d like the Kantian car programming, please. That Bentham car will get you killed.

  11. LTMG

    Anticipating that some wag will attach a non-functioning supercharger air scoop and non-functioning exhaust lake pipes to a Tesla. All in brilliant chrome, of course.

  12. drouse

    In all the talk I’ve heard about the coming of driverless cars , I’ve heard very little about how law enforcement fits into the mix. I’m sure that the police would love to be able to tell a car to roll up the windows, lock the doors and deliver your contents to me. Any such mechanism would open critical security holes that will be exploited. Not that bad ideas ever stopped them from trying.

  13. Jonathan

    “do we really [want?} cars to go the same way?” Hell no.

    Something is definitely lost when we lose the tactile. Acceptance of truthiness and the dearth of real experience seem to go hand in hand.

  14. softwarerider

    I think we’re making overly simplistic assumptions about driverless vehicles and how they may work in practice, and as a result, what the choices and decisions we will have to face will actually be.

    There will certainly be fully autonomous, driverless vehicles of the sort everyone’s talking about, but that won’t be the only modality. It’s also quite possible to make ‘augmented driver’ technology, where the human is doing the driving for pleasure, but the computer gives warnings or perhaps intervenes fully if it anticipates a high risk of a collision.

    The best applications of technology extend our abilities in an intuitive, unobtrusive way. I’ll fully admit, as a software engineer, many if not most applications of technology spectacularly miss that mark. Too many ideas are simply solutions in search of a problem, all over-hyped of course by someone looking to create the next iPhone, or Facebook and be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

    Vehicles today already have begun to augment their human drivers.

    Like commenter macktheripper, I’m a motorcycle enthusiast. I just bought a new motorcycle, my first new purchase since 2000. My new machine comes with traction control that monitors the power delivery to the rear wheel and will nearly instantaneously reduce the power applied to the rear wheel if it detects slippage. This has enabled the machine to have an absurd (but joyously pleasing) 160 horsepower that can be ridden by mere mortals, with more safety than many machines less powerful. My older year-2000 machine was also absurdly powerful, but lacked this feature. Unskilled application of the throttle on that earlier bike, particularly while in a turn or under poor traction conditions could have caused a crash, and even the best trained and alert riders can miss seeing a slick spot.

    Rear wheel traction control for motorcycles originated on the racetrack, where ultralight machines are combined with ridiculous amounts of power. Even for world-class professional motorcycle race riders, modern track bikes are absolutely uncontrollable and un-rideable without digital ‘fly by wire’ throttles and rear wheel traction control. With traction control, lap times have decreased, and humans augmented by technology can go faster than ever before.

    The questions we may find ourselves asking are hopefully not “will we allow humans to continue to drive” but “with a reliable computer watching over things, can we let humans drive however they want and have more fun?” What if a computer augmented driver can be safer at 100 mph (including the externalities of other, unassisted drivers, pedestrians, etc.) than an un-augmented driver at 55mph? Can we remove speed limits for those vehicles?

    I think more challenging issues we will have to address will be when we consider that for most of us, the majority of law enforcement interactions come through traffic stops. If we have cars that are operating in fully autonomous mode, can a traffic stop be justified any longer? The basis for pretextual stops will be removed, and presumably law enforcement’s primary means of interaction with the public outside urban areas will be gone. I’m sure there will be arguments for the vehicular equivalent of stop and frisk to continue, even if new, tortuous legal reasoning has to be created to justify it. “I thought your computer might be malfunctioning so I stopped you for a safety check.” may replace “I stopped you because you were inconsistent in your lane.”

    Taking things even further, what about the inevitable demands that self-driving cars have a remote-control ability for law enforcement to force them to stop? Given the pattern demonstrated by the push today for backdoors in encryption systems to be occasionally used by law enforcement and frequently by gangsters, we’d inevitably have new types of crimes where people maliciously force self-driving cars to travel to destinations other than where their passengers intend.

    For some municipalities, traffic enforcement is a large proportion of revenue. No civic entity will ever relinquish an income source without a battle.

    These are the questions that I think we have to begin to address before we can even approach the one about whether or not humans are still permitted to drive for themselves.

  15. Brady Curry

    So many questions for computer driven cars.

    Can I send the computer driven car out by itself to make a drug delivery? Can the computer give LEO permission to search the car? How long before LEO are given an app by which they can shut down any computer driven car? When I do drive, how am I supposed to run over zombies, when the inevitable zombie apocalypse comes, when the car includes a collision avoidance system? Will the collision avoidance system allow criminals to simply stand in front of the vehicle and rob it when it stops? Will the computer know when the tires are worn, or other parts are about to fail, and drive accordingly until the owner can put together the money for repairs?

    When faced with a no-win situation, such as a head on collision or driving over a 300 foot cliff to avoid the collision, who writes the code to make the decision? Will the damn things be affordable for all when mandated? When weather washes out a bridge will it know in time? Will it avoid a pothole on a minimally maintained highway? Will it kill you in a wreck while trying to avoid a deer or any other such wild creature? Can it tell the difference between a human or an animal? Will it kill four people in the car while trying to avoid one person running into the road?

    I believe it will be a long time before all cars will be computer driven. Besides, what will happen to the government revenue stream formerly generated by human driven cars? No more speeding tickets. No more crossing the white or yellow lines. No more running stop signs. In other words, no more pretext stops. On second thought, it may not be a totally bad thing after all.

    1. Brady Curry

      Seems as softwarerider beat me to most of my points. I might need to read a little more and say a little less. At least I’m not alone.

  16. Liam McDonald

    Am I the only one who is shocked that there is a teenager behind the wheel of that beautiful car!?!

  17. Ross

    Self driving cars are the product of the minds of people who live in urban areas. They are not very practical for rural areas where folks live some distance off the road, or spend much of their time towing farm machinery or trailers full of animals. In those situations, vehicles will require a manual drive mode.

  18. MelK

    You might be interested in reading Cory Doctorow’s latest short story, Car Wars. I found a link to it off his blog Boing Boing. (No links here, because. Y’know.) While a lot of the story was given over to technical issues, it did mention law issues a time or two.

  19. rxc6422

    Governments will not be able to stop themselves from mandating self-driving cars, once they become readily available. It will be all about control and revenue.

    They will not want to miss out on the ability to track all vehicles, in real time, and order them to stop and lock the doors whenever a “situation” requires it. They will also require cameras inside and outside the vehicle, to provide a good record for understanding what is going on, in real time. Law enforcement will really love this. I wonder whether the number of shootings will go up or down…

    Tracking also allows them to know exactly how many miles the vehicle travels, and this can be used for revenue enhancement. There is already a debate about how to tax electric vehicles that don’t pay gas taxes, so this will let them tax road use. And they can even use this tracking to apportion the taxes around the different jurisdictions, just to be fair. Every road will become a toll road! Yaaaayyy!

    Finally, this will be a good opportunity to get all those old, dangerous vehicles off of the road and generate lots of good high-paying manufacturing jobs to build all the replacement vehicles. Or give small businesses the opportunity to install retrofit kits on existing cars.

    There will be no losers here, and it will be too tempting to ignore. It will probably start in the big cities, with a requirement that all vehicles that travel in Manhattan, for example, have to be self-driving, or the driver must have a special, very expensive license to operate there. Gradually roll it out into the hinterlands as people get used to it.

  20. 0dder

    “I have a 1964 Austin Healey BJ8, and there is (trust me on this) nothing better after a hard day of work than jumping into the seatbeltless cockpit and winding through the gears, watching the tach hit redline.”

    I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m pretty confident that winding a 2000 Honda VFR800 Interceptor (seatbelt?! cockpit?! Ha!) through the gears *might* be more invigorating. Of course, we could always measure it. In an objective way, of course.

    By acceleration, top speed, and cornering.

    Or maybe the width of the smiles on our faces.

    Hell, why don’t we just get it over with and whip out our cocks and measure those?

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