Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Autonomous Cars Can't and Won't Take Over the World…Yet

Google made a pretty big stink over its fully autonomous prototype car that was unveiled a few weeks ago. Completely devoid of so much as a steering wheel, any sort of pedals or styling, I have to say there are a list of things that I would do before I'd get into the Google Car and that includes a romantic, candle-lit dinner with Hannibal Lecter.

The Google Car is the ugliest thing to ever sit atop four wheels...ever...full stop. It makes the Pontiac Aztek look like Brooke Shields at nineteen and would cause even the most devout Edsel detractor to go scrambling for the keys to take a spin. But despite its cartoonishly dour appearance, the Google Car has attracted attention both positive and negative and people either can't wait to get the chance to buy one or are dreading the day they show up and that goes back to how certain people perceive driving.

For the majority of us, driving is a chore, a boring, tedious exercise that just has to be done to get where you need to be. I am firmly in the opposite camp that finds driving exciting, fun, and adventurous. For me, getting behind the wheel is the point of driving, not the destination but I can totally understand the appeal of being driven around the city, not having to worry about anything except what you'll do after work. But despite that, the Google Car brings a trickle of fear to my mind because I can now see the genesis of the time when our privilege to drive for ourselves will be selectively removed, likely "for our own good". Or will it?

A dated study (the only one I could find) from 1985 showed that a whopping 93% of vehicle crashes in Britain and the US were caused either partly or wholly by human factors. If anything, I'd wager this number has likely gone up in the intervening years due to the improvements in the performance and design of cars and the increasingly distracted nature of smart phone addicted drivers. There's no denying that autonomous cars hold the potential to greatly reduce traffic congestion and almost completely eliminate the human role in car crashes, especially in today's world but there's a part of this that hasn't been investigated thoroughly and in my opinion, until it has been, I wouldn't put any money on autonomous vehicles taking over the world just yet.

Consider this; with autonomous cars there would be no reckless driving, no speeding, no running of stop signs or red lights and no road rage. Pedestrians could cross the road safely, bicyclists would be given plenty of room and there's a solid chance that in the future, physical traffic control devices such as signs and signals would disappear from the landscape entirely as the autonomous vehicle network is built up and begins to communicate. Sounds like paradise, doesn't it? To you it might, but not to the elected and appointed officials that run our governments.

Per the National Motorist Association, anywhere between $4.5 and $6 billion is raised annually from traffic fines alone. Say that figure out loud slowly. Go ahead…I'll wait. SIX....BILLION.

No matter your political leaning, left, right, center, whatever, you have to realize that cities and states across the nation are not going to just let that cash cow out to pasture without one hell of a fight, especially with how much cash-strapped cities are now leaning on their police departments to bring in extra cheddar. Think about it; no more drivers means no more cell phone violations, no more red light running or rolling through stop signs, no speeding, no failure to signal and no improper lane changes. Zip…zilch…nada. The only thing left to squeeze out of autonomous cars would be parking tickets and expired tags. And the government will not be the only one to suffer from this sudden loss of income.

Insurance companies would be left insuring something that is virtually impossible to crash, will be very hard to steal and the only thing they'll likely be insuring it against is the odd chance that a tree happens to crush it in the middle of the night. It happens in insurance commercials but car-crushing trees are a fairly rare thing in the real world. Sure they'd be paying out far less but I'd bet a sizable chunk of my monthly premium that you wouldn't pay what you're paying now to cover a car you can't crash and that nobody else can hit. And the list of potential victims goes on; automotive body shops would vanish virtually overnight, companies that specialize in traffic control and signals as well as those involved in photo radar and red light cameras would become a mere memory, no more pizza delivery drivers to tip, and the enterprise that has built itself up around humans and the things we do, accidentally and intentionally, behind the wheel would almost completely cease to exist. Millions would find themselves out of work, billions of dollars would be lost, and an industry reduced to the bare minimum is the future in a world where cars aren't controlled by humans. I cannot conceive of a scenario where at least one person would go unaffected by a world without cars driven by people. I'm sure some of you are likely screaming at your computer screen right now, saying that somebody in 1915 was probably going on the same way about carriage makers and blacksmiths and you are right. The displaced millions would find other work but the difference is that horses remain very popular as a sport and hobby interest solely for the beauty of the animal and while the industry surrounding horses is a mere shadow of what it once was, billions in ticket revenue didn't ride on the back of a horse. And that's the bitter truth.

If the day comes that autonomous cars do take over our roads entirely, you can bet that a whole slough of fees will be attached to them (at purchase, annually, or both) to make up for the lost ticket revenue the average motorist provides Uncle Sam in any given year and like the frequency of traffic tickets, it would go up 'as needed'. You may be ready for autonomous cars but if you follow the money, you'll find that very few others are.

1 comment:

Tara said...

Not to mention that Big Brother would be able to track literally every time you drive somewhere--oh, you're implicated in x,y,z? Let's just go check and see what your movements have been for the last two weeks...