Why I Want a Driverless Car

Yesterday was a bad driving day. We were in Grand Rapids for a three-day swim meet. Sunday afternoon I had my 15 year old daughter drive from the hotel to the pool, and just as she signaled to move into the left turn lane, the driver behind us accelerated, passed us on the left, driving through the left turn lane and straight across the intersection. My daughter barely avoided a collision.

As we were leaving the swim meet, I was driving in the left lane and approaching to pass a vehicle in the right lane, when suddenly I saw a car approaching from behind in the right lane at high speed. I quickly braked and the car swerved violently in front of me to pass the other car.

The last part of our 2 1/2 hour trip home is on two-lane roads with occasional passing lanes. A slow vehicle–going 35 mph–caused a long backup of traffic, which led to 3 drivers deciding they just couldn’t wait, and driving into the on-coming traffic lane to pass 4 or 5 cars in a row…which didn’t get them past the slow vehicle, and didn’t enable them to make through the next traffic light 5 miles on before we arrived at it.

Finally, at one of the sections with the passing lane, I was in the left lane, having passed another car, as the lanes began to merge back to one lane, when a driver decided to pass me on the right as he was running out of lane. With another car directly in front of me, it wasn’t as though he was going to get anywhere an faster by getting ahead of me.

The advantage of the driverless car is it sees all these things and can react more quickly than I can, especially when I’m tired from a long weekend. If other people are going to act in a way that endangers me, I want to ensure my safety.

And while I wouldn’t outlaw driving, I’d be fine with a rule that prohibits reckless drivers from piloting their own 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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35 Responses to Why I Want a Driverless Car

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’m a huge supporter of driverless car research and laws. The potential benefits are huge. And really, the threshold for “good enough” isn’t as high as people think it is. All they have to do is be a little safer than the median driver. Given how many terrifying mistakes the average driver makes, that’s not all that great.

    If we unleashed them now, the death rate on the road would probably go up. But over time, we’d reach a “break even point” with an equal death rate. Anything after that is lives saved over the long haul. If we never take the risk, we’ll never reap the rewards of getting past the break even point.

  2. Troublesome Frog says:

    Regarding outlawing driving–Once the driverless cars are working properly, you could just slowly ratchet up the requirements for a standalone license. People who were objectively good and capable drivers could keep driving and people without the requisite skills would have to be passengers.

    The nice thing about driverless cars is that they could actually be used to administer a much more fine-grained and objective driving test. They’d see *everything* the examinee was doing wrong and be able to quantify it. No more hand waving and horror stories about getting a weird examiner, and no more letting bad driver slide.

  3. Matty says:

    A lot of discussion around this I’ve seen suggests automatic cars would mean location tracking so the car manufacturer knows where you are and can inform insurers, government etc. This confuses me, surely the car could use a combination of satellite navigation and short range radar for avoiding collisions, neither of which require the data going beyond the on board computer, so where does the need for tracking come in?

  4. Troublesome Frog says:

    There really wouldn’t be a need for tracking. I would expect a “black box” type of trace log in the case of an accident. That would serve the dual purpose of allowing accident reconstruction for liability reasons and helping the manufacturer debug any issues. I can see how that might make people nervous, but as long as the data in it is trustworthy and only comes out after a collision, I don’t see how it’s a problem. The LiDAR system in it would provide a very rich dataset for accident reconstruction.

    If we could configure the cars to send certain data back in aggregate, it would also be incredible useful for research and maintenance. You essentially have a distributed system of millions of sensors covering most of the areas humans go most of the time. Think if the possibilities. Automatic discovery and cleanup dispatch for junk in the roads and potholes. Ultra fine-grained traffic reporting for future traffic engineering tweaks. Navigation systems linked to a central computer to optimize average travel time when multiple cars want to use the same routes. And that’s just off the top of my head.

  5. Matty says:

    I am thinking of the possibilities. Want to know where your wife/ suspect/ off work employee/ political opponent is right now?

    If real time tracking was involved I’d be against it. Of course if we could make sure the data was aggregated in a way that prevented that a lot of possibilities for good stuff open up.

  6. AMW says:

    On a related note, I would really like to see drone technology ported over into commercial air travel. I think the benefits would be substantial.

  7. Troublesome Frog says:

    Matty,

    I understand your concern, but we’re already doing this fairly well with cell phones. And cell phones require a lot more information about your location and movements be transmitted back to a central authority. And what more soulless and untrustworthy organization can you think of than AT&T Wireless?

    AMW,

    What technology would you want to see ported? It seems to me that the technology in drones is mostly tech borrowed from commercial air travel. I don’t think I’d trust most airlines with Hellfire missiles if that’s what you’re thinking.

  8. James Hanley says:

    If we unleashed them now, the death rate on the road would probably go up

    Given Google’s million-miles-without-an-accident record, I suspect not.

    How many of us have driven a million miles without being involved in an accident, whether as the responsible or innocent party?

  9. Lancifer says:

    Not to sound like a Freeman or a conspiracy nut but…

    The word “freedom” has a very real meaning when it comes to this issue. If you are cargo in your automated car that is connected to a network, programmed by someone or something else, you have zero freedom in that situation. If your every control input is monitored to see if you are driving “safely” or in a way that emits less CO2, or whatever, you are again constrained and your freedom, if not zero, is severely limited.

    This is but one of the many issues that our society is going to face with the advent of cyber-technologies that can be used to track us and compel us to act in a way that is “socially acceptable”. Or, in the case of driver-less cars, take away our part in the process completely.

    If the goal of society is to make sure that we are all acting safely and efficiently there is a very real probability that our future is one of being monitored and restrained in all phases of our lives. If freedom is not actively represented and valued as part of what it means to be a human being it will be relentlessly eroded, often with zealous and moralizing fervor.

    I think our society has already crossed that threshold. Seat belt laws are a good example. If you don’t wear your seat belt you are the only person that is going to be directly affected if you have an accident. But, compelled by the federal nanny state who was relentlessly lobbied by the insurance companies, state legislatures have relented and imposed seat belt laws.

    The argument is that if you don’t wear your seat belt and have an accident then you will incur injuries that will be paid for by your insurance company and then this cost will have to be born by other people that have the same insurer. People have largely accepted this argument.

    Well the same argument can be made for any “risky” behavior, from motorcycle riding to drinking large sodas (Mr. Bloomberg I’m looking at your authoritarian ass).

    Many people are comfortable with this change in our societies priorities.

    I am not.

  10. Lancifer says:

    While I’m on my Freeman soapbox, here’s two quotes from Thomas Jefferson and a question for the folks who read this blog.

    First the quotes,

    I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

    and,

    The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

    Now the question,

    Is there a point at which you would consider taking up arms to protect your freedom? If yes, at what point would you do so? Do you think the idea is antiquated, perhaps barbaric? If so what ultimately guarantees our freedoms?

  11. James Hanley says:

    Yes, there is a point. I’m not sure what it is.

  12. Matty says:

    If you are cargo in your automated car that is connected to a network, programmed by someone or something else

    But that is what I was getting at, there seems no need for a centralised network to automate cars, an onboard computer that is as much under your control as any other device you own should be sufficient. Actually the fact that Google have already road tested these things and as far as we know no such network has been built suggests it is not part of the proposal.

    There are proposals for cars to transmit information, which I find troubling though as TF notes that ship has already sailed to a large extent, but this is a separate issue to automating the driving.

  13. Lancifer says:

    Matty,

    I hate “slippery slope” arguments but I think the automated car is just a step towards removing the driver completely. Also, unless you are the one programming the system it might as well be connected to a “network”.

    For example, let’s say these systems are put in place and they reduce accidents by some arbitrarily large proportion, which I am sure they would. Well, then an argument can easily be made that driving yourself is dangerous. So the next time you hit a car that is operated automatically you are liable for the damages.

    Do I have to point out how easy it would be for this “reckless and irresponsible behavior” to be outlawed? Why it would be the last automotive hurrah for the trial lawyers even if it wasn’t made illegal outright.

    “Dear members of the jury, please observe my poor disabled and paralyzed client that was struck down in her youth by the irresponsible actions of the defendant. He thought his “freedom” to recklessly operate his automobile was more important than the life of this sweet young child.”

    I say kill the driver-less car now, while we still can.

  14. Lancifer says:

    Of course i am currently designing my own personal small jet aircraft. So when and if they put the clamps on my car I’ll just take to the skies.

    Of course there are already pilotless planes so that window may be closing as well.

    Enjoy your life in the matrix. I hear the digital steaks are delicious.

  15. Matty says:

    I’m tempted to ask you to give my regards to General Ludd but instead I’ll make you an offer. I will defend your freedom to spend hours concentrating on the other cars, road conditions, gears etc if you’ll stick up for mine to relax during a journey rather than having to focus on those things.

  16. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’m a cost/benefit kind of a guy. I’m totally with you on the “no centralized tracking of my movements” thing, but I personally don’t put a huge premium on the ability to drive myself around. Maybe it’s because I spend a couple of hours per day doing it and would much prefer not to have to. Maybe it would be different if I drove a “fun” car, but I think it would still become a grind sooner or later.

    In congested urban areas, the benefits are potentially huge. Big reductions in traffic jams and higher average overall speeds would be great. Imagine top freeway speeds closer to 90 mph and how many extra hours that would buy commuters per year. The benefits are much smaller in rural areas, but I wouldn’t expect any significant limitations on low density rural roads anyway. There’s just no reason for it.

    We already limit your choice of cars on certain roads. A tractor isn’t OK on the freeway because its top speed is dangerously low relative to the flow of traffic. Well, most of the time, anyway.

  17. James Hanley says:

    Lance–I sense a business opportunity. Create race tracks for paying customers. Surely the fun in driving isn’t in commuting, or simply driving round and round Naptown on 465.

  18. Lancifer says:

    James,

    While lamenting the end of active driving I thought about the race track idea, but I actually like just jumping in the jalopy and rolling around ol’ 465. The freedom to drive my own car where ever I please is one of my great pleasures in life. Even if it is just to get groceries.

    It’s a beautiful 65 degree day and I’m looking for an excuse to hop in my Miata and take a topless (the car not me) drive around Carmel.

    I would also love to turn the Miata into a track toy and actually have plans to convert it into an LS6, V8 powered Vette humiliator. http://www.flyinmiata.com/V8/

    For now it is just a sweet little car that begs to driven hard. I think I hear it calling my name.

  19. Lancifer says:

    Matty,

    If loving to drive makes me a Luddite so be it. I actually laugh at my sister for her love of horses and riding them so maybe I’m just the next anachronism in the family.

    I’m actually OK with the idea of the driverless car as a sort of super-cruise-control so long as it doesn’t replace active driving. I am fully in favor of getting the people that would rather text, chat, read books, eat, put on make up etc. out from behind the wheel. If they want to be cargo while robot Jeeves takes the controls it would be a great improvement as far as I’m concerned.

    But as I said I think it will be used as a reason to compel people to give up active driving.

  20. Lancifer says:

    Troblesome Frog,

    At some point driverless cars just become privately funded public mass transit. If the program is approved by some government agency. and who thinks it wouldn’t have to be, then you are just sitting in an unconnected rapid transit compartment along with the rest of the commuters. You just don’t have to stop at all the other stops

    This is fine for most big cities I guess.

    You almost had me, right up to…

    “We already limit your choice of cars on certain roads.”

    I’ll give up my steering wheel when you pry it from my cold dead hands!

    Or something like that.

  21. Troublesome Frog says:

    As you note, some people enjoy horseback riding, but I’m not in any rush to slow down the average speed on 880 in order to allow people to do it there. At some point, we’re talking about efficient use of critical public infrastructure. If it’s a simple difference between our current accident rate and a slightly low one, that’s one thing. But if we’re talking about the ability to massively increase throughput on congested roads that keep our economy running, I can definitely see a “robocar only” option for commute times on major thoroughfares. I’m guessing it would look more like our HOV lanes do now. The two left lanes are for robocars running at 90 mph and drafting for efficiency and the right two lanes for people living life to its fullest.

  22. Lancifer says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    I think you are underestimating both the current level of technology and the cost of robocars. I doubt they will replace actively driven cars in the next twenty years. By then I’ll probably be too damn old to even care.

    I much prefer the German model where drivers are held to a much higher standard of training and road discipline. I say we need an American Autobahn system.

  23. Troublesome Frog says:

    We do have a long time before this is real–at least “real” in the sense that a robocar majority pushes the manual driving minority off the road. Even if we had 100% perfect robocars right now and they were the same price as manually driven cars, we’d still have to wait 20 years or so for the existing cars to depreciate before we could reasonably replace the whole fleet. Or 12-15 years if we were to do some sort of “cash for clunkers” buyback to retire cars faster.

    That’s another reason why I’m optimistic. This is a slow cultural shift rather than the type of jarring policy problem that happens when a technology hits a culture that isn’t ready to absorb it. Manual driving will eventually be for enthusiasts who likely won’t be interested in doing it in LA during rush hour, so the likelihood of a big war over the rights to use the road seems low to me.

    You wouldn’t get any argument from me if you proposed more stringent driver testing. I’d especially like to see anybody who doesn’t understand the 4-way stop algorithm dropped immediately. It would make the world a better place.

  24. James Hanley says:

    That’s another reason why I’m optimistic. This is a slow cultural shift rather than the type of jarring policy problem that happens when a technology hits a culture that isn’t ready to absorb it.
    This. What I love about this is that it can be implemented on an individual basis, by preference of car owners.There’s no Nash equilibrium to the current system.

    I’d especially like to see anybody who doesn’t understand the 4-way stop algorithm dropped immediately.
    The entire state of Oregon would immediately lose their driver’s licenses. The state dropped driver training a few decades ago, and while their accident rate is normal, certain basic rules of the road are very poorly understood. I regularly saw cars arrive at a 4 way stop, then wait to let all other cars that approached go first. Or the classic case of “it’s time for everybody driving east to go through the four way stop now,” which would result in 2 or even 3 cars backed up to all go through the stop sign like they were a funeral procession. Many’s the time I wished for a scattergun.

  25. Lancifer says:

    Carmel Indiana, my home town, has aggressively been replacing 4 way stops with round-a-bouts, or traffic circles if you prefer. I love them. Except about every other day I have to endure a driver that either doesn’t understand the very simple rules (traffic in the circle and too your left has the right of way.

    I am tempted to buy a 1972 Oldsmobile Park Avenue station wagon, clad it with 1/4 plate steel, and spend the day circling the roundabouts. I would not yield the right of way to those too ignorant or lazy to obey the simple rules.

    I would plow into them with vigor and then submit the estimated costs of the repairs to their insurance companies. The glancing blows would be very unlikely to cause injury to the offender (one of the great things about roundabout). The car would easily be totaled and then I would find another American land yacht and start over.

    I could make thousands each day. Eventually the insurance companies would have to pay me off or endure the perpetual drain on their revenues.

    James,

    It’s not as emotionally satisfying as your scatter gun idea but it would be more profitable and less likely to result in incarceration.

  26. Lancifer says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    Manual driving will eventually be for enthusiasts who likely won’t be interested in doing it in LA during rush hour, so the likelihood of a big war over the rights to use the road seems low to me.

    Oh, I was (mostly) joking about the “pry the steering wheel from cold dead hands” remark. Even I don’t enjoy bumper to bumper city driving. I think there will be an interim period of ever increasing driver’s assist features. There are already collision avoidance systems, anti lock brakes systems that monitor wheel speed and pump the brakes faster than any human could, stability control programs that selectively apply the brakes to correct for dangerous yaw and roll and self parking features on every day cars.

    I wouldn’t mind having a car that stepped in when I fell asleep or braked or swerved when I didn’t see an immediate threat. I think such systems could (and are) being integrated into actively driven vehicles.

    I just want to be able to override these features if I wish and drive the car myself when I choose.

  27. Troublesome Frog says:

    The oddball 4-way stop trick we have out here is waiting for pedestrians while occupying the intersection. Imagine a full 4-way stop with the driver at North ready to go. Driver at North enters the intersection and then decides to stop in the middle of the intersection and wave to a procession of pedestrians who are waiting at the corner to cross the South crosswalk. The entire intersection is now jammed up with a car in the middle of it while pedestrians trickle across out of turn. I have no rational explanation for this behavior.

    Roundabouts plus a 6-month training period with circling garbage trucks as enforcers would make life a lot better. I’m pretty sure they’re better in just about every quantifiable way except space efficiency.

    The neighborhood I just moved into has my favorite death trap: The grid of 4 way stops with the occasional 2-way stop tossed in at random to keep you on your toes. Or, as I like to call it, the t-bone zone. What are people thinking when they design this stuff?

  28. James Hanley says:

    Angola, Indiana, has a roundabout in their downtown, with some kind of war memorial in the middle. My wife hates it (she had to drive through it last Sunday, and was not happy). I love them. That is, I don’t really love navigating them, but I love that a simple design can dramatically reduce injuries and death.

  29. Matty says:

    I find it astonishing such a large country regards roundabouts as an oddity but what really stands out is this “The state [of Oregon] dropped driver training a few decades ago”, does that mean there is no driving test, that someone who has never driven can just get in a car and go?

  30. Matty says:

    Oh and 6 months roundabout training? I was slow learning to drive but I’m pretty sure that was no more than one two hour lesson.

  31. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    No, they require a driving test. And there are private driver training companies, for those who want to use them. But they don’t require it, and it’s not offered through the schools as it is in (at least most) other states. It was a victim of budget politics, at a time when the state was strapped and noticed a study that suggested driver training offered few benefits. It later came out that the study had some flaws, but by then the deed was done. And as I said, there accident rate doesn’t seem to be particularly high, it just seems to be some of the little details that get lost. For example, Oregonians will resolutely drive in the left lane of the freeway at any speed. We’ve come upon them going 60 when the speed limit is 65, gotten them to pull over out of our way, then watched in the rear view mirror as they pull back into the left lane…despite there being any traffic in front of them in the right lane. My wife was once complaining about Oregonians not knowing the left lane was the fast/passing lane, and one of our friends, an adult Oregonian, blurted out, “Really? I never knew that!”

  32. Matty says:

    Is that all? That’s pretty much the way we do it, you learn to drive with a private company then take a test with a government improved driving examiner. I’m pretty sure the UK system covers basic road rules though, although there is a possibly apocryphal story of a woman from a remote Scottish Island who had been driving for 40 years, crossed to the mainland and it emerged she had never learnt what traffic lights were.

  33. Matty says:

    Government approved examiner, not improved, not improved at all.

  34. James Hanley says:

    government improved driving examiner.

    Damned liberals. ;)

  35. lancifer666 says:

    James,

    I have a friend here in Indiana who delights in driving slowly in the left lane of the interstate. I have explained to him that this behavior is dangerous as well as discourteous.

    I thought it was also illegal. While it is in many states it is not here in Indiana.
    He thinks that so long as he is driving above the posted minimum he has “the right” to drive in any lane, even slowly, in the left lane, for extended periods.

    He is otherwise a bright and decent guy. He won’t even admit there is anything wrong with his behavior.

    In Gernamy he would get stopped and issued a ticket for a large fine in minutes. That’s if the other drivers didn’t pull him over and beat the Be’jesus out of him first.

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