Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

Driverless cars: the real reason they won’t be here soon

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As anyone who knows me knows, I love talking about driverless cars. I have a daily google search scouring the internet for any fresh mentions of the topic. They need to hurry up and get here.

As Chunka Mui points out in a short series at Forbes, it’s a very disruptive technology.

If a car is allowed to drive itself, it’s likely to put taxi drivers, truckies and other transport workers out of a job. It’s even likely to replace most forms of public transport. And it’s likely to end the current model of private car ownership. People with a need to transport either themselves or anything else simply need a subscription to a car service.

In other words, there are a LOT of vested interests set against allowing cars to drive themselves.

The counterargument, ‘not-so-fast-dorks’ discussion tends to focus on two themes.

One is that the transitional stages where computers and real people share the road is hard. Jarred Walker makes some good points, but I still think he’s underestimating the fact that sharing the road with humans is the main focus of the technology push Google is making. When futurists bang on about robot cars all tailgating each other a few centimetres apart, I agree that it’s way off. But the transitional stage IS the vision. Google is making cars that can drive themselves alongside humans. Once there’s only a handful of grumpy old humans left on the road, the cool stuff can start happening in dedicated driverless lanes.

The other major counterargument is that the insurance and liability issues are hard. The substance of this problem itself doesn’t strike me as particularly bad. Spreading risk is the point of insurance. And driverless cars just need to have compulsory third party insurance, same as they do today. Driverless vehicles will most likely be owned by companies rather than individuals, so there is already a level of risk mitigation. When someone or something in Australia is hit by a driverless car, they will have access to accident compensation through the compulsory insurance scheme the same as if they were hit by any other car. Negligence litigation for driverless vehicle accidents should probably just be removed by statute (or indeed in a far wider variety of circumstances – but that’s another debate). There will be tragic accidents because of problems with driverless systems, but there will almost certainly be a lot less than with the vagaries of human drivers. It’s a pretty clear policy trade-off to me.

But we will hear a lot more about this problem, because, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of vested interests that don’t want cars to drive themselves. And the biggest richest ones are probably the car companies themselves. If people don’t need to buy a car, car companies are screwed. They’ll be left selling trying to sell their fleet to the driverless fleet operators (Hertz? GoGet?) and a few antiques to enthusiasts.

The big battle for driverless cars will be a lobbying battle. Car companies already preface all their happy visions of automatic driving technology with the statement that ‘cars with no drivers are still a long way off’. And this is how they want things to remain. The new Mercedes has adaptive cruise control and steering, but it stops working if the driver takes their hands off the wheel. The legislation passed in a few US jurisdictions so far requires a driver to be in the seat and in control at all times. This seems sensible now while the technology is in the testing stages. But the real trick will be getting this requirement removed as soon as possible. Or for ‘control’ to be moved a little further up the chain – right now ‘control’ entails a steering wheel that points the car in the right direction, but why not say ‘control’ amounts to ‘I have told it where to go using my smartphone’. If someone can make a car that can drive itself, and consumers are happy to buy it and get driven around in it, and have the right level of insurance – then why ban it?

One fairly good reason might be that it will be economically disruptive and put a lot of people out of a job. And that impact is a debate worth having. But it will open up a whole lot of new opportunities too. Internet shopping could grow even faster with automated anywhere delivery (or is that ‘retail shops will shut down’). Lanes currently devoted to parking could be reclaimed. Holiday houses five hours out of town could become worth more if you can sleep overnight in the car on the way there. Really, cheap and ubiquitous transport would unleash a whole new level of ‘free market’, in the same way that cheap and ubiquitous electronic communication has already changed everything. It’s pretty exciting.

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Written by Francis

January 31, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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