Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Driverless Cars – Yes Please

1280px-Jurvetson_Google_driverless_car_trimmed I enjoy the thought exercise where I imagine how people 100 years in the future will regard our generation. I hope that they will be horrified by what MS patients had to endure, because the disease will have been eradicated for many years by then. I also hope they will be appalled by our mindless partisan bickering, because 100 years in the future government will be characterized by reasoned debate and rational discourse. And finally, I’m sure that our descendents will be amazed that human beings used to drive automobiles on public roads, because all personal vehicles will be self-driving by then.

What are the potential benefits of driverless cars? There are so many. Here are just a few:
1. Once the technology is in place, human fatalities from automobile accidents will become rare – maybe on par with the number of deaths from drowning. Today, automobile accidents are the number one cause of death for young people. Almost all of these fatalities are due to human error, not machine error. Self-driving cars will monitor each other and road conditions much more accurately than humans do, and they will make quicker and better driving decisions. Once in a while mechanical/computer failure or unexpected road conditions may still result in accidents, but they will be uncommon.
2. When all vehicles are communicating with nearby vehicles and with a traffic monitoring/control system, traffic jams will become much less common. Overloaded roadways will still exist, but with traffic control systems routing individual automobiles in the optimum direction, the situation will be greatly improved. Commutes will be shortened, and workers will be productive or will be free to relax during their commutes.
3. Fuel efficiency will increase as automobiles operate closer to optimum speeds, with much less stop and go driving, while avoiding excess idle times due to fewer traffic jams. Also, with increased operating efficiency will come decreased pollution loading.
4. Personal automobile ownership will drop significantly as a fleet of self-driving cars will be available on short notice, at least in urban areas. This will lower everyone’s cost of transportation.
5. And my personal favorite – people can be transported independently in an automobile even if they are not capable of driving. This will help disabled people, minors, injured people, and even intoxicated people (who are responsible for 1/3 of auto accidents).
The technology is evolving quickly. Google has a fleet of self-driving cars, and has recently developed a prototype of the next generation autonomous car that doesn’t have a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. The biggest challenges, however, may not be technological, but logistical and legal. How will traffic laws need to change to accommodate a slow evolution from human driven to self-driven automobiles? How will we handle liability in accidents, especially if there are injuries? Who do you sue if the accident is due to an onboard computer failure – the owner, the passenger, the auto manufacturer, the software developer? Also, how can we prevent hacking and protect privacy on the roads?

I can sort of imagine what the roads will look when all cars are self-driven. But I have trouble imagining what the roads will look like for the twenty or so years when there is a transition from 100% human-driven to 100% self-driven cars. People who invest in the self-driven cars will be angry with human drivers who make mistakes that cause traffic jams or accidents. Human drivers will be annoyed by self-driven cars that go too slow or come to silly full stops at abandoned intersections at 2 AM. As laws and economics slowly push human-driven cars off the road, there will be backlash from traditionalists.

“We love our cars, so why should we have to give up the joy of driving? This is America after all.”

Some answers are in my list of advantages – especially the one that states:

“Automobile accidents are the number one cause of death for young people. Almost all of these fatalities are due to human error, not machine error.”

Is this not reason enough?

I think there will always be a place for enthusiasts to drive their own cars, but eventually it will be relegated to specially designated sections of road. I envision that human driving will become a purely recreational activity.

I can’t wait for the day when I can travel independently again in my self-driving wheelchair van. Okay, I may not live that long, but today’s young, disabled people almost certainly will.

Here are two links of interest:

And two TED talks below (or click here and here):


  1. Mitch,
    You make some very interesting and possibly valid projections for the future.
    The one, however, that I must cynically disagree with, is that of the disgust with our partisan politics.

    As a student of history, I cannot imagine that humanity, that has not politically matured in thousands of years, (think Greece, Rome, Middle East etc) will be any different than they are today.

    Unless...the robots have taken over.

  2. Interesting points you have made and good videos too. I hadn't realized we were this close.

  3. xaidw B, perhaps I am naïve and overly optimistic – but I have a dream of a world where political discourse is not mindnumbing and intelligence insulting… Yeah, you're probably right.

    Daphne, the level of interest in self driving cars is only going to increase in the coming years, and the technology is going to move quickly!

  4. Keeping the sarcasm alive at 3 KimballJune 15, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    You wrote:
    “Automobile accidents are the number one cause of death for young people. Almost all of these fatalities are due to human error, not machine error.”

    Is this not reason enough?

    I have two words to explain why it's not reason enough - gun control.

  5. maybe the future of transportation will belong not to GM and Ford, but to Elon Musk and Google. and maybe the future of treatment for MS will belong not to expensive drugs of questionable efficacy and Big Pharma but to doctors and researchers, offering us stem cell therapy and other treatments that we have not even heard of. i like your vision.