A System of Autonomous Cars

The Vehicle

According to a Bundle.com study, Americans spend an average of 72 minutes a day behind the wheel. Imagine the increased productivity and general welfare if that time could be spent on other tasks, such as doing work, checking email, making calls, or even sleeping. Having to spend less time keeping one’s eyes on the road and hands on a steering wheel will free up time for life’s greater pleasures.

That day may not be far away. Google has recently test-driven seven artificial intelligence-powered cars over more than 140,000 miles on California roads, including highways and Lombard Street, which is famous for its turns and steepness. For the testing, Google had two people aboard: one technician and one person in the driver’s seat ready to take over the controls if necessary. So far, the only accident occurred when another vehicle rear-ended a Google car at a red light.

It is not difficult to picture the enormous impact that self-driving cars will have on society. When the technology fully develops, it will revolutionize the way we live in the same way that television, the Internet, and cell phones have. As Google engineers have pointed out, robots react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception, and do not suffer from problems affecting human drivers that frequently result in accidents, such as distraction, drowsiness, and intoxication. On Google’s official blog, engineer Sebastian Thrun estimates that the technology can reduce traffic-related fatalities in half, a figure that I believe to be very modest when we think about the cars’ true potential.

The Route

As Kenneth Anderson notes, the real potential of autonomous cars will only be realized if we outlaw all manual driving and every car on the road drives itself. Cars would then be able to travel safely with less distance between them, which, according to Markoff’s New York Times article, would double road capacity. If a system of artificial intelligence-powered cars makes accidents a thing of the past, we will be able to use lighter materials in car manufacturing, both cutting resource consumption in the car manufacturing process, as well as increasing fuel efficiency.

Such a scenario will not be feasible if there are even a small number of human-driven cars left on the road, or even if autonomous cars include the ability to manually take over the controls. An autonomous car will still be at the mercy of its physical limitations and the constraints of the road system, and will have difficulty avoiding accidents if it shares a congested road with reckless drivers. Another problem is that computerized cars will likely employ very passive driving systems designed to avoid accidents under all circumstances. Aggressive human drivers would be able to take advantage of passive computer drivers all day.

How feasible is a system of exclusively self-driven cars? The technology will not likely be the problem. We already have cars that can parallel park with limited input from the driver, as well as cars that brake on their own if a crash is imminent. Additionally, driving can be fairly easily broken down into various algorithms and functions, as the main variables involved are predictable: lanes of standard widths and traffic lights that change in predictable intervals. Currently, the only truly unpredictable element is the behavior of other drivers which would be much more foreseeable once computers take control.

The greatest barriers to such a system might very well be legal in nature. One such barrier is liability. In a system of robot-driven cars where people are free to do other things while their cars transport them from place to place, such as checking email or napping, who should bear accident liability? Since the benefit of such technology is to allow drivers to perform other tasks while in the car, placing accident liability on them would be counterproductive. Putting liability on the technology companies might discourage the innovation needed to fully develop the technology in the first place. On the other hand, if the technology works like it is supposed to, crashes should become a rare occurrence, reducing such a burden. Another possibility is that insurance companies will bear liability.

A second issue that comes up is whether the government should be able to outlaw something as fundamental to our society as driving cars. Americans have loved their cars for decades. Many of us know people who beam with joy after a car purchase and enjoy the freedom associated with taking a car for a spin on an open road. There will undoubtedly be drivers with squeaky-clean driving records who will claim that their driving poses no threat to everyone else. There will also be people who will distrust having a computer take over their driving, especially since the consequences of a malfunction might include serious injury and death. Some may even claim that their driving is a form of expression, and that a ban violates their First Amendment rights.

However, I think the government will ultimately prevail. Congress can look to the Commerce Clause for a Constitutional source of authority in passing legislation requiring use of self-driving cars on roads. Is there a countervailing fundamental right being infringed? Ever since The Passenger Cases, the Supreme Court has recognized a basic right to interstate travel and laws prohibiting or burdening interstate travel must meet strict scrutiny. Nevertheless, it does not appear that mandating use of self-driving cars would substantially burden this right. Airplanes, trains, and perhaps even self-driving buses will still be available as modes of transportation. Furthermore, since self-driving cars will ostensibly be safer, they can be built in such a way as to accommodate the much lower likelihood of accidents, driving car prices down. This lower likelihood of accidents would drive insurance premiums down as well. Moreover, better fuel efficiency means less spending at the pump.

The Destination

Judging from Google’s promising test runs, it appears that it is not a matter of if but when a self-driving car will become available to consumers. When that day comes, we should be ready to hurdle the legal issues that pose the greatest barrier to a system of autonomous cars. Once we implement such a system, the benefits will be nothing short of extraordinary.