Thoughts on driverless cars

Since I’m getting a lot of hits from marginal revolution readers, let me write down a few thoughts I’ve had for a while on a favorite topic there: driverless cars.

1. It will be a wonderful thing. Besides the 1.2 million killed per year (if that is something you want to shrug off with a Besides), driving is a major source of stress in people’s lives. For many, their commute is the absolutely worst part of their day. There are also a not-insignificant number of people who, for one reason or another, do not drive (or strongly prefer not to). This limits their choices in all sorts of minor ways (which jobs they can take, where they can live, who they can meet socially…)

2. Regulatory issues will be solved. As I wrote, millions of people die in car crashes every year and so the idea that regulators will stop this technology is, even for me, who am not generally a big believer in the abilities of regulatory authorities, is too horrific to contemplate.  It is an interesting reflection on the Great Stagnation that some people think that there may be technology to save a million lives per year (about twice as much as malaria), but our public regulators are so dysfunctional that they will stop it.

Of course, it’s a fallacy to assume that just because something is horrific, it will not happen. However, I have a bit more trust in the power of large corporations to obtain regulatory approval for their products than the pundits who argue this will be a stopping block. There are also intermediate steps that may be taken so that slowly the world moves from the current state to the new, better, driverless cars, state. The introduction of driverless trucks only on some roads is exactly one such step. In the same way, the liability issues will eventually be solved. Regulations may delay the introduction of driverless cars¹, but not stop it.

You just need a one or two jurisdictions to take that first step. It will probably be one of the most enlightened polities like Sweden, Singapore, or Nevada (the UK?). Then, slowly, the rest of the world will copy it.

3. (Human) driving will be illegal. Besides the fact that it kills so many, it will just be possible to have humans drive through intersections like this one. There won’t be any more need for traffic lights, no parking signs, &c If a city wants to cut off a specific street for construction work, or reroute traffic, just update the online map and broadcast it: the driverless cars will then know to avoid that street. So, pretty quickly it will become impossible for humans to drive the streets.

4. Driverless cars will change citiesThey will enable much higher density. Have you ever driven through an empty large city in the middle of the night and felt amazed at how fast you got around without all the traffic? Even Manhattan could be crossed in less than half an hour from one end to the other. It will be like this all the time. Except that there may be second-order effects where even more people move into dense city centres. At the same time, streets can be narrower, parking can be taken off the street (just have the car drive you to your door and then go park itself somewhere far), so there is more buildable area. This line of reasoning leads us to expect much higher densities.

They will also enable much lower density. It is nice to live out in the country, but long commutes are horrible. But if the car is driving itself while you catch up on email or the blogs… This line of reasoning leads us to expect much lower densities and gigantic sprawl.

Maybe will get both: very dense city centres for the young and hip, with a huge suburban rings. Average density is over.

In reality, it’s hard to predict how all of these forces will play out as they push and pull in different directions. However, cities will probably not look the same at all.

5. Driverless taxis and mini-busses will be the future of public transport.

6. What is the time frame? Pretty soon, we’ll have to buy a new car for my wife. I don’t yet worry about the fact that eventually driverless cars will drive down the resale value of non-self-driving cars, but at some point, yes, this will happen: nobody will want to buy a car that doesn’t drive itself.

However, for a city project, the time frame may be already close enough that any city starting a mass transit project should consider the possibility of driverless cars. A new tram line whose planning is starting today may only open 10 or 15 years in the future. Is it really a good idea if the possibility of it being obsolete before it even opens is so real?

This feels like trolling (imagine showing up at a public hearing and asking your city council what happens with driverless cars), but new mass transit projects may just not make sense anymore.

7. It won’t be good for the environment. Yes, it’s possible to have more efficient cars, car sharing as the norm, &c. But lowering the cost of moving around so enormously will certainly make people move around more. Why not go visit someone who lives 1000 miles away on the week-end if the car can drive itself during the night. Fall asleep here, wake up there (without all the hassle of a public sleeping car in a train).

Perhaps if there is a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion, we can replace all the cars by fusion-charged electrics, but until that happens, the small gains in efficiency will most likely be outweighed by the increase in consumption.

¹ Thousands of people died in this sentence, maybe millions. Even a public hearing which delays decision a few weeks, will cause thousands of deaths. Note that this still happens even if the driverless car roll-out process is spread out over many years, so that the additional deaths do not happen in a  one time event. It’s the way that regulatory agencies kill: they delay the introduction of life-saving technologies and the deaths caused are statistical and invisible.


8 thoughts on “Thoughts on driverless cars

  1. About point 7, I thought the implied reasoning was having self driving along with electric cars with proper electric grid stations implemented.

    (And even if we take into account that Electric is not 100% clean at the moment, I think it might be accomplished in your 10-15year timeframe)

    1. Yes, but electric is very far from 100% clean, it’s below 20% CO_2 free in most places after decades of investment. To avoid fossil fuels, we’d need fusion or just a lot more traditional nuclear to tackle the need for so much power if there are many more electric cars on the road.

      This book convinced of the limitations of renewables: Since I think that consuming less is a political pipe dream, I conclude we need nuclear fusion.

      1. Lower consumption is, yes, a pipe dream. Fusion might also be (every decade, it’s only 50 years away) Leaving aside that aside, it is somewhat clear that coal will come out of the ground if we don’t do anything drastic.

        However, can’t the drastic be the accumulation of small things? Renewables + energy efficient + new battery technology, for instance. We’ll still have some fossil fuels and none of the above solves the problem entirely. But the combination, and its iterations can potentially have enough advances to lower fossil fuel consumption. This, of course, could not be a “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little” type of saving.

  2. However, can’t the drastic be the accumulation of small things? Renewables + energy efficient + new battery technology, for instance

    In principle, but this needs to be really much cheaper than it is now and to scale to a very large output (which is a problem too).

    Fossil fuels keep getting cheaper too and if the methane hydrate at the bottom of the ocean becomes accessible, then that is a major new source of CO_2 rich energy.

    I’m a bit skeptical of the ability of any non-nuclear sources to produce enough (the Without the Hot Air book is a citation here again).

    Fusion may also be a pipe dream, but it’s certainly worth investing more in it than currently is being done.

  3. I don’t see enough people discussing whether driverless cars are even close to being able to operate in real streets in a real city at reasonable speeds.

    > if the city wants to block a road just broadcast a new map

    Will this centralized system ever be safe from hacking? How long until a DDOS attack brings the city to a halt? Or kills people? Websites are hacked everyday, but they mostly don’t put lives at risk… I wouldn’t like any kind of network connection to the computer that runs the engine.

    > No no need for trafic lights

    How do you cross the street, then?

    Why do you think driverless cars will get you speeds comparable to being in a traditional car with alone on the road ? Will cars accelerate instantaneously? Won’t you need any safety distance between cars? Yes, you get instantaneous reaction times, but you still need some distance to break in an emergency. And unexpected emergencies will happen, with or without human drivers. Do you want to turn every unexpected stop or software miscalculation into an 80km/h collision?

    I don’t mean to sound overly negative, I’m just trying to keep the discussion grounded in the real world for a bit. If you have some source that answers my questions, I’d love to see it.

    1. I agree that traffic lights for people crossing streets may still be necessary in many instances, but not the majority of intersections where you currently have traffic lights.

      The worry about hacking killing people is a real one. But, we’ve crossed that bridge a while back. Cars can already be hacked into (in some modern cars, when you press the brake pedal, this is just a signal to software which then uses that input to decide how much pressure to apply on the actual physical brakes), so can planes, medical equipment, &c.

      I do think self-driving cars need a safety distance; I said so in the post. They just need a milisecond-time safety distance and not a second-time safety distance like people do.

      1. > in some modern cars, when you press the brake pedal, this is just a signal to software which then uses that input to decide how much pressure to apply on the actual physical brake

        Is it? Do ABS systems work like that?Fortunately in all cars I drive the brakes work even when the electrical system is down (you lose the mechanical asst, of course), and I’d like it to remain like that 🙂 I have to be more careful when buying cars in the future.

        How can planes be hacked? If there any connection from the incomming comms to the engine? I though they were protected by an air gap (even though almost all planes are fly by wire now). I’ll confirm this among some people inthe business.

        Medical devices are a joke indeed. I’m currently reading a book (Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine) that refers to pacemakers with WiFi connections as a good thing. I have a friend who did his thesis on the safety of Medical devices and it’s not nice.

        I’ve never done any kind of computer vision stuff, and I wonder if “millisecond-time” safety distance is good enough using vision/LIDAR. Can you recognize decceleration in the car ahead you that quickly? Or would you be dependend on intervehicular communication? I’m not a big fan of trusting wireless communication of any kind (unlike wired communications, which is rock solid in my experience).

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