I drive a two-seat roadster known for its great handling. The last thing I want is for a machine to take the steering wheel out of my hands. My car company isn't into self-driving cars, but others are: Ford, BMW, Audi. And, of course, Google is moving quickly forward with road-worthy autocars that have accumulated 300,000 miles with only one (human error) accident. The advantages of cars that drive themselves are multiple and compelling.
Automobile intelligence already assists the driving experience by warning of dangerous situations and taking control of parking, which is, for some people, the most difficult maneuver to perform. We are gradually ceding control to our cars. When a completely automated consumer car launches, some drivers will hand over the reins gladly. But for me and other enthusiasts, driving a car isn't just about reaching a destination; it's about the journey and operating a beautiful machine. Unfortunately for people who feel that way, the greatest social benefits of self-driving cars would kick in if everyone were herded into a new era of hands-off driving.
The biggest benefit of robot cars is the most obvious: safety. The US suffers more than 30,000 fatal crashes each year. If that number seems reassuringly low in a population of 313 million, consider that about 6 million other crack-ups occur each year without a death, resulting in some 3 million injuries. A huge percentage of these misadventures involves drunkenness, speeding or distraction. Leading types of distraction include using cell phones, eating and texting -- the last being the most dangerous of all types according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In other words, people want to do most of the things that cause most accidents
In other words, people want to do most of the things that cause most accidents. Self-driving cars would be the great liberator of people for whom driving is a boring necessity. That is the first and fundamental purpose of robots, after all -- to shoulder drudgery.
Consumer attraction to automated cars will also hinge on potential conveniences. Eliminating the search for parking spaces is one of the most publicized and alluring. Another: consider a smart car with parental controls that could take the kids to school and return home. In the realm of efficiency, most experts believe road congestion would be reduced if self-drivers populated the roads, thanks to an orderly packing of cars closer to each other than is advisable under human control. Speed limits might rise, too, with trust that robots can pilot the rush.
If self-driven vehicles were the norm, car travel would assume a new identity as a type of private transportation that incorporated aspects of public transportation. There would emerge an odd similarity between taking a seat in your hands-off car and boarding a bus or train. The car would be a rolling private room as opposed to the rolling public office of a commuter train.
Autocars would edge even more into the public-transport realm if an immense dispersed fleet were networked. Interlocked components of GPS, traffic surveillance and flow management could optimize rivers of automobiles to lessen jams and feed cars onto roads with extra capacity -- all informed by an intelligent overview that gets you to your destination quickest by routes you could never compute yourself. If the perceptual abilities of autocars were hooked into the police (moving about in their self-driven patrol cars), every road would be a speed trap and every car a radar gun. That would be an undesirable scenario for most manual drivers, but generally favorable to road safety.
It is easy to predict autocar ecosystem wars preventing the level of standardization necessary to accomplish network efficiencies across make-and-model operating systems. In matters affecting the common good, the government gets involved, as with national emission standards. But America is, by definition, an alliance of ecosystems, and some regulations of road travel (like seat-belt rules) are administered state by state. All of which is to say that an imagined nationwide fleet of privately owned, self-driving, centrally optimized cars might be a political fantasy more than a technological one.
That fantasy cannot even glimmer with possibility before significant auto-driving legal issues are resolved -- notably, who is liable in a traffic accident involving at least one self-driving vehicle? And there are related industry challenges, such as revising how insurance companies evaluate risk and blame.
I can live in a mostly auto-driving nation, as long as stick-shifting acceleration and hands-on steering are grandfathered in
No matter what progress is made in bringing self-driving cars to the road, the US will not outlaw manual driving; I say that with a mix of confidence and hope. But regulations can lean into governmental agendas and influence choice trends. One example: fuel tax (which is levied by the feds and augmented by the states) alters the financial decision of commuting by car. Or, in the home, tax credits and rebates for green products build awareness of those products, help develop a market and drive adoption. (Green incentives exist at various governmental levels from federal to city.) Similar incentives and disincentives could be used to herd drivers into auto-driving cars.
I can live in a mostly auto-driving nation, as long as stick-shifting acceleration and hands-on steering are grandfathered in. If you see a BRG convertible zipping alongside an orderly row of vehicles on the highway, music turned up loud, driven by a person with a smile on his face and no phone in reach, you'll know it's me.
Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He drives swiftly and safely.