I Want a Driverless Car

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Google’s driverless car, which is safer than human drivers. I want one. I don’t care for driving, and I tend toward attention-drift and tunnel vision. I have a distressing ability to simply not see a car coming down the road when I’m preparing to make a turn; I look, carefully, but sometimes they just don’t register in my cognitive visual system. Besides, driving limits my ability to do anything but drive. I can’t stare raptly at the scenery, or at least ought not do so. I can’t read. I can’t talk on the phone (well, apparently everyone can talk on the phone; it’s the simultaneous driving they can’t do).

Now Adrian Wooldridge has some thoughts on how driverless cars might affect the economy.

[C]ars that are driverless may not need steering wheels, pedals and other manual controls; and, being virtually crashless … their bodies could be made much lighter. So makers would be able to turn out new models quicker and at lower cost.

I think Wooldridge misses the point there. We could produce cars using less steel, making that resource more available for other productive purposes.

Cabbies, lorry drivers and all others whose job is to steer a vehicle will have to find other work. The taxi and car-rental businesses might merge into one automated pick-up and drop-off service: GM has already shown a prototype of a two-seater, battery-powered pod that would scuttle about town, with passengers summoning it by smartphone. Supermarkets, department stores and shopping centres might provide these free, to attract customers. Driverless cars will be programmed to obey the law, which means, sadly, the demise of the traffic cop and the parking warden. And since automated cars will reduce the need for parking spaces in town, that will mean less revenue for local authorities and car-park operators.

So we might have an end to the cab cartels. Traffic cops and parking enforcers are surely only a necessary cost, one we’d be better off if we could dispose of. And parking garages are not only the ugliest buildings one usually sees in a major city, they’re one of the least productive uses of expensive urban land.

When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopaedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too.

There’ll still be risks, so there will surely be continued insurance, even if it’s more along the lines of homeowners insurance, but it will surely be considerably cheaper. And as valuable as doctors are, the need for emergency room services and hospitalization is a net drain on the economy. I remember having laproscopic abdominal surgery, the first person in my town to have that surgery instead of the “saber slash” (as the surgeon described it), which reduced my recovery time from 6 weeks to a literal handful of days. What an economic savings, and how much more if we can avoid the tens of thousands of hospitalizations annually from auto accidents.

When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise.

Ugh, I don’t like that one. But unless these cars are electric and we shift to greater reliance on nuclear power, fuel costs may offset that. And I’m not sure I’d move further from work just because I didn’t have to do the driving. Being in a car, even if I can read, play video games, or whatever, is still less pleasant than doing those things in my living room or on my front porch, so where do I really want to be able to spend that extra half hour or so?

When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce.

On one day last week I made six separate trips to tote my kids around. Take daughter three to school. Pick daughter two up from school. Take daughter one a Jimmy John’s sandwich before her swim meet. Pick daughter three up from school. Take daughter three to swim practice. Pick daughter three up from swim practice. Thank god my wife took daughters one and two to school and picked daughter one up after the swim meet. Can anyone doubt I would have been both less frustrated and more productive that day if I had a driverless car?

The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived.

Who can put a price on the salvation of the most prized aspect of English culture?

And the best thing about driverless cars is that network effects aren’t an issue. There don’t need to be lots of them before you can get all the benefits of them. In fact in terms of safety the greatest benefits accrue to the first mover, who is made much safer around all those human drivers, whereas the last mover–the lone human driver in a sea of driverless cars–gains comparatively little safety benefit from switching.

I’ve sworn I’ll never buy a new car again. I could see making an exception for a driverless car, because I wouldn’t just be buying transportation, I’d be buying time. Not that I won’t be price sensitive–it’s not worth everything to me, and I’ve never been an early adopter for technology–but I’d stretch a lot further for a driverless car than I would for any normal car.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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16 Responses to I Want a Driverless Car

  1. Scott Hanley says:

    The author overlooks one of the other benefits – a self-driving car will use fuel far more efficiently than a human driver does. Partly that’s through gentler inputs, more gradual acceleration and minimal deceleration. But there’s also an expectation that self-driving cars won’t usually need to stop at intersections. Instead, they could creep through at a reduced speed, slotting themselves safely in between the cross-traffic. Without all that start-and-stop, fuel efficiency for city driving would be nearly that of highway driving.

    Unfortunately, the driverless cars will need to accommodate all the human drivers for some time yet, so the full benefits will be a little slower coming. I don’t think most human drivers would handle an intersection well if they saw cross-traffic aiming at a spot three feet behind their bumper, so there will still need to be traffic lights – perhaps with ever-lengthening wait periods before the auto-cars are stopped to let the humans across.

    Ultra-light cars might be a little slower arriving, too, until riders become confident that the collision-avoidance system can evade that yahoo in the speeding Suburban. But with a 360-degree radar system, perhaps that’s not so difficult to achieve as it sounds.

    Oh, and I happen to know that some race fans fell hook, line, and sinker for this April Fool’s joke last spring!

  2. James Hanley says:

    D’oh! When I woke up this morning and made an edit to this post, I meant to include that about fuel efficiency. Thanks for adding what I forgot.

  3. Matty says:

    Sadly I suspect the authorities will take a long time to believe it really is safer and continue to insist there is a qualified driver sat in the front seat staring at the road and a full set of controls ‘just in case’.

    Otherwise absolutely, it takes 6 hours to get to my parents for Christmas if I’m lucky and there’s only so much listening to the radio anyone can take.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    I can see this being problematic for the police at first. Imagine the first few times they see a car whiz by with the person in the “driver’s” seat slumped over sleeping or holding a book up in front of their face.

  5. AMW says:

    I actually enjoy driving myself, but I’m still very excited by the possibility of driverless cars. I don’t think I would buy one for myself, though. From the snippets I’ve read it seems like one of the big benefits of driverless cars is that most people won’t need to own their own; it should be very cost effective to just rent one whenever the need arises.

    But I think the biggest benefit will be getting cops off the traffic beat and doing some socially useful work instead of raising revenue for the local/state government. Which, I suppose, is a hidden cost to driverless cars. Our taxes will probably go up some to cover those lost revenues. Still, getting rid of the traffic cops would be well worth the price.

  6. James Hanley says:

    AMW, I’m going to read that as you want the rest of us to have driverless cars so you can fly down the freeway without worrying about either the rest of us getting in your way or the cops ticketing you.

  7. AMW says:

    I wish I were being so clever. I just meant that one of the big benefits will be that I don’t need to own my own car anymore. At that point I can just rent one on demand or pay a monthly membership fee. And I’ll probably be too cheap to shell out for my own.

  8. AMW says:

    A couple of thoughts on driverless cars.

    1. When the technology is mature, driverless cars will be almost impossible to use to flee from police. Consequently, driving your own car will send a signal that you have a higher likelihood of being a criminal offender. Solve for the equilibrium, as Cowen would say.

    2. Driverless cars will make long, road-trip style vacations much more pleasant. As people take more cross-country driving trips, stopping for food, sleep and restroom breaks will become a cost, rather than a benefit. How long before we get the first self-driving mini-hotels: SUV sized vehicles with bunk beds, a refrigerator and bathroom? How long after that will these mini-hotels be sufficiently nice and cheap that poorer folks give up on living in houses altogether?

  9. James Hanley says:

    I don’t understand the “not needing your own car” point.

  10. AMW says:

    I mean that it seems likely that driverless cars may well make it cheaper for people to rent cars on an as-needed basis from fleets of constantly active cars owned by one or more businesses than to own their own driverless cars.

  11. James Hanley says:

    Maybe. I don’t think it would help the average soccer mom with three kids. But it would certainly lower the insurance costs for car rental agencies, which should lower the rental fees. And I suppose it makes it more functional, from the rental agency’s POV, to rent cars on an hourly or half-day basis.

  12. Matty says:

    Of course it is already perfectly possible to rent a car for only when you need it and have it delivered to and picked up from your house. Most people don’t do this and prefer to own a car and I don’t think it is just a cost issue, people like having a car of their own and if they are living in it for longer periods this demand would probably go up.

    Then too why would it be that much cheaper? The only cost to the rental company that would disappear is the salary for the delivery driver, which I suspect at least initially would be matched by a higher price for them to buy a fleet of driverless cars.

    A former employer of mine insisted we use rental cars for business travel on the grounds that it cost more than the rent to reimburse staff for use of their own cars. Maybe they were being over generous (which would be very out of character) or maybe a more dispassionate cost analysis would show that a lot of us would actually save money by renting on demand even if we have to drive ourselves.

  13. Lancifer says:

    James Hanley,

    AMW, I’m going to read that as you want the rest of us to have driverless cars so you can fly down the freeway without worrying about either the rest of us getting in your way or the cops ticketing you.

    Although that remark was meant for AMW, and apparently doesn’t reflect his opinion, it pretty much summarizes the only thing I would like about driverless cars.

    I am a “car guy” and love driving my cars. The idea of getting into a pod and telling it where I want to go (assuming it isn’t deciding that as well) is abhorrent to me. I even hate automatic transmissions! On a recent coast to coast, cross country trip, in a truck no less, I used the cruise control exactly once for about ten minutes.

    Except for flying an airplane, which I haven’t the money or time to pursue at the moment, there is no greater feeling of freedom, to me, than jumping in my sports car and heading for the hills. I enjoy the sound of the engine, going through the gears, the tactile feedback of the steering wheel and all of the other sensations of actually driving an automobile.

    I subscribe to three automobile magazines and spend many hours online in automotive forums. I own a Toyota MR2 and I am currently putting a 400 horsepower LS1 V8 engine into my Miata. I also enjoy driving my other less sporty cars (a 1996 Camry and a 2002 F-150).

    I hope that when driverless cars do arrive it won’t mean the end of active driving.

  14. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    I support your last sentence. There are certain circumstances where I find driving enjoyable, even if I don’t normally do so. And I wouldn’t want to take that pleasure away from anyone else. But, sadly, I can see it happening.

  15. AMW says:

    Then too why would it be that much cheaper? The only cost to the rental company that would disappear is the salary for the delivery driver, which I suspect at least initially would be matched by a higher price for them to buy a fleet of driverless cars.

    Don’t forget that the higher utilization rate would mean a smaller fleet would be required, and fewer of those cars would be idling in a parking lot not earning revenues. Also, a more active fleet means lower required storage capacity for parking them all, and an automated fleet means fewer people required to assist customers with paperwork, etc. Also fewer accidents and kinder driving will probably mean lower maintenance costs. I’m imagining the fleet as being nearly constantly on the road, responding to customer requests in real time, leaving minimal requirements for staff and facilities beyond maintenance and IT.

  16. AMW says:

    As for the soccer moms, once the kids are old enough (12?) mom wouldn’t need to go with them to a lot of the destinations. Whether or not the typical soccer mom would avail herself of this benefit remains to be seen. But if the price is low enough…

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