Sr. Director, Product
Imagine a world where terrorists nuked Detroit. And then, magically, we removed the radiation, and exactly one year later, we nuked it again. And we repeated this cycle, over and over, forever.
What would happen? Every country on earth would band together in a moral crusade to end the terrorist threat. Massive surveillance systems would be put into place to assure that we find the terrorists. We would gladly surrender our privacy, just like we did with the 9/11 terror attacks, but on a much grander, breathtaking scale. National ID cards, biometric scanning at the border. Minority Report style detention for “pre-crime”. Waterboarding and worse. It would all be on the table.
Yet, today, 1.2 Million people — more casualties than the entire population of Detroit, die every year from auto accidents. Further, the vast majority of these accidents are caused by human factors. Driving drunk, driving distracted, driving tired. If it isn’t the tired, drunk, distracted texter, it’s the angry, impatient driver going too fast for road conditions. We have laws against all these things, and while occasionally they are enforced, clearly, laws alone don’t do enough to make driving safe enough to not cause a self-inflicted annual Hiroshima of casualties. If legalized driving for the mass of society were to be proposed anew, we would almost certainly not allow it.
Why have we allowed ourselves to live this way? Objectively, we’ve made a calculation as a society. We’ve decided the convenience and freedom afforded by driving are worth the 1.2 million lives we lose each year as a result. You could make the case that this is ok — cars driven by humans have advanced our standard of living. Most of the prosperity we enjoy today compared to 100 years ago likely owes itself to the cars, trucks, and other human driven vehicles. For every life we’ve lost due to cars, historically, we’ve likely gained one or two. Intuitively, this is why we live with the bargain we do. Human driven vehicles are one of the great double edged swords of our time — they have great power, but require great responsibility.
That said, you could make the case that the car is one of the most dangerous weapons ever put into the hands of the common man. The only comparable weapons are guns, and in that respect, the US is anomaly, at least in developed countries, with respect to broad distribution within the general populace. However, unlike guns, it has secondary costs that are also very high. While guns don’t pollute, most cars, with the exception of some newer electric cars, generate massive amounts of carbon. Massive amounts of infrastructure is provided for cars in most cities. In most US suburbs, car infrastructure is so primary, it is dangerous to walk or use a bicycle, even for short trips. When you count the wars over oil, the global warming impact, the pollution, and the costs to our infrastructure — the amount we pay for our freedom to drive a personal car is utterly staggering.
Driverless cars have come a long way. They’ve already driven millions of miles in several US communities, albeit with a driver monitoring just in case something bad happens. Tesla’s cars already have auto-pilot features in them that allow hands free operations. Even mainline car manufacturers are adding these features, often under the names “enhanced cruise control”. Cars today automatically parallel park, an operation so difficult that many fear parallel parking as the most difficult aspect of a behind the wheel driving test.
However, as much progress as we’ve seen, the surface has only been scratched. There are developments coming that really start to make this compelling. Right now, driverless cars have to correct for human emotion on the part of other cars on the road. And while one could lament that the path to driverless cars would be easier if other cars were driverless — without an emotional human driving them, the fact that these cars are being developed to respond to emotional actors in their environment is a good thing. Even if it were politically feasible to remove cars en masse from society and go driverless, you will still have non-automobile obstacles, such as cyclists and pedestrians.
Once more and more cars are driverless, the benefits of car-to-car communication will start to become evident. Once all vehicles on the road can communicate, say, on a busy freeway, cars will be able to coordinate their speed, forming “car trains” that use less fuel. They will be able to maintain a consistent speed, saving fuel. They will also reduce accident likelihood, since such trains will require fewer lane changes and reduce the average speed differential between different vehicles on the road.
Leaving aside the benefits in terms of 1.2 million less deaths, cleaner air, less global warming, and fewer wars over oil — the real burning question… will we be happier? Commuting is one of the most stressful activities we do. For most, it is a daily ritual that drives up blood pressure, making people tense, irritable, and more aggressive. Imagine the additional time we gain when our personal robot chauffeur drives us instead of having to do it ourselves. We could do more work in our car, watch a movie, meditate, or simply watch the newly greener scenery that we get from less pollution as we watch from our car windows. We could go out, party to our heart’s content, and never worry about being “too drunk to drive”, much like rich people do that have private drivers.
Imagine what this does for parking in cities. Right now, in most cities, parking is at a premium. It uses a ton of public space — especially since cars need to be close to their owners. In the driverless future, after the car drives us to work, the car can drive itself to central parking garage for the day, specifically built for such cars. Without a need to be human accessible, you can store many more cars per square foot at lower cost. When you are ready to leave, call your car to where you are at just like you might call an uber to pick you up today. Heck, perhaps, if you are enterprising, you can even make some money on the side by having your car drive others around the city while you are at work.
So how does this happen? Believe it or not, there are places today — perhaps most — where horses are allowed on public roads. In some places, specific laws were passed to make sure horses would always be allowed. I imagine that driver-driven cars will become obsolete by this route. At some point, the time saving, fuel saving, and financial benefits of driverless cars become so obvious that people voluntarily make the switch. Eventually, the benefits of plugging your car into the “car network” — allowing your car to coordinate self-driving activities with other cars — is compelling enough that it will overcome people’s privacy fears. Some pundits say this is a 20 year transition, less in urban, developed areas, more in other places.
However, that is a long time to wait, and there are things we can do to speed up the transition. If we could speed this up, even by 10 years, that would save, globally, 12 million lives. 10 years early in this case double the number of people killed in the Holocaust. Roughly the entire population of the greater Los Angeles area. How could we do this?
Indemnify makers of driverless cars and associated technology against punitive damages from crashes
If the technology doesn’t work or causes needless death, people will not adopt it, and the technology will not be adopted. While we should make whole those killed in any accident, we should not penalize them for the same kind of errors human make. If we switched en masse today, chances are, we would already reduce the number of deaths by over half. That alone would be worth doing if it were politically feasible. But it isn’t, however, we should not penalize the makers of these cars given how obvious the lifesaving potential is.
Encourage more states to pass laws explicitly allowing autonomous vehicles
California and Nevada have led the way, and other states are quickly following, but before this can really become mainstream, laws need to be in place that explicitly allow these vehicles nationwide.
Certainly, there will be resistance. The car makers are on board, as they — not just Tesla, but the legacy automakers, already have autonomous cars in their pipeline. Expect resistance from the petroleum industry, and probably from groups that represent occupations that will be made obsolete by this technology — taxis, truck driving. Lastly, there will be resistance from other drivers — holdouts that are left behind, now stuck behind autonomous cars that do not speed, and are programmed to obey traffic laws. There are already reactionaries, and this will only increase, especially once more cases of occasional accidents that involve these cars become more public.
There was a time that people could not imagine life without riding horses. And people still do, but few people horse commute to the office. But horses were different. While some people may have been killed by falling off horses, or getting trampled, the deaths from cars are so much higher than the form of transportation they replaced that the comparison is laughable. And while there is reason to be optimistic — particularly given that the natural evolution of technology and labor saving devices make these cars all but inevitable, we must be vigilant, as the dream of the American Car won’t quietly go into the night without a fight.
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