At PrawfsBlawg, Tracy 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?