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Do You Really Want A Driverless Car?

Driverless cars may create unexpected problems.

By Petrarch  |  October 17, 2017

Some people truly love the automobile, enjoying their time behind the wheel even when there's another stopped car three feet in front of their bumper.

For the rest of us, the idea of a self-driving car that whisks us from place to place while we do something more productive and less stressful is a fair approximation of Heaven.  Checking email, playing a game, even just taking a nap - think of all the time wasted actively driving your commute that could be put to some better, or at least more pleasant, use!

Billionaires from Elon Musk on down are working hard to make that possible.  And let's face it - on a long trip, leaving the driving to Robby the Robot can't help but be a good idea.  Nobody likes staring at mile after mile of boring freeway.

When it comes to your commute, though, we may be overlooking a minor detail - a small fact that's also led to a good many minor, individually insignificant accidents, that collectively add up to a big problem:

While the public may most fear a marauding vehicle without a driver behind the wheel, the reality is that the vehicles are overly cautious. They creep out from stop signs after coming to a complete stop and mostly obey the letter of the law — unlike humans.

Time In the Car vs Time In Bed?

As human beings, we make conscious choices as to our every action, particularly in a car.  We all know the speed limit and stop sign laws.  We also all know, to a pretty good accuracy, how they are actually enforced in our area.

Blowing through a stop sign is illegal, dangerous, and a bad idea.  What about a "California roll," though, where the driver slows down to 5mph and then cruises through?  That's certainly slow enough to instantly stop if there's a reason to, but preserves valuable momentum, reduces the pollution from a hard acceleration, saves  fuel, and generally Saves the Planet.

It's extremely unlucky, though possible, that you'll get ticketed for "failure to stop" in such a case.  Most of us make the judgement that the risk is worth the time and gas we save.

Self-driving cars, though, don't: they must be explicitly programmed, and that programming can be subpoenaed in a lawsuit.  It's essential that what's in the code match religiously with the letter of the law.  So autonomous vehicles will always come to a full and complete stop at every stop sign, regardless if it's midnight and there are no headlights visible for miles in any direction.

Then there's speed limits.  Does anyone obey the speed limit, ever?  At the very least, the speed of traffic is "rounded up" to the nearest whole number; more commonly it's "7 over" that's thought to be safe from citation.

Now, there are those particular speed traps where extra care is in order, but most of us know where they are in our immediate neighborhoods and treat them with the respect they deserve.  A computer can't know this - it literally can't, because any car company which tried to program in such information would be instantly sued into bankruptcy.  For the same reason, the autonomous vehicle must precisely observe the speed limit, deafly ignoring the dozens of angry fellow travelers piling up behind.

How about stoplights?  Running a red light is asking for death.  A self-driving car will courteously brake for an impending yellow light, though, when 99% of human beings will floor it to get through the intersection before it changes and they're stuck waiting.

How much of a difference this will make to your personal commute depends on a lot of things, but the deeply conservative approach of an autonomous vehicle could easily increase your drive time by 25% all told.

Of course, when the technology matures, you personally won't have to do that driving; you can be doing something else in the car, and maybe it will be worth it.  For the same reason, many people take the train to work even if it takes a bit longer, because they can just sit there and be carried along.

Those of us with more aggressive personalities won't be amused by a car that frustratingly slows down for a yellow when we "know" it could make the light if only it would try!  It may be more aggravating cussing out the car we're in than to just do the driving ourselves.

A reliable self-driving car would be a fantastic technical achievement, and it'll certainly find a market for long-haul drivers of all kinds.  For the daily commute, though, it may be longer than Elon Musk thinks before everyone will adopt his pride and joy.