The Implications of Self-Driving Cars

My friend Ron claims that “Mike does not drive.” This is not true—I do drive, but I do so as little as possible. Part of it is frugality—I don’t want to spend more than I need to on gas and maintenance. Most of it is that I hate to drive. Some of this is due to the fact that driving time is mostly wasted time—I would rather be doing something else. Most of it is that I find driving an awful blend of boredom and stress. As such, I am completely in favor of driverless cars and want Google to take my money. That said, it is certainly worth considering some of the implications of the widespread adoption of driverless cars.

One of the main selling points of driverless cars is that they are supposed to be significantly safer than humans. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which involve the fact that machines do not (yet) get sleepy, bored, angry, distracted or drunk. Assuming that the significant increase in safety pans out, this means that there will be significantly fewer accidents and this will have a variety of effects.

Since insurance rates are (supposed to be) linked to accident rates, one might expect that insurance rates will go down. In any case, insurance companies will presumably be paying out less, potentially making them even more profitable.

Lower accident rates also entail fewer injuries, which will presumably be good for people who would have otherwise been injured in a car crash. It would also be good for those depending on these people, such as employers and family members. Fewer injuries also means less use of medical resources, ranging from ambulances to emergency rooms. On the plus side, this could result in some decrease in medical costs and perhaps insurance rates (or merely mean more profits for insurance companies, since they would be paying out less often). On the minus side, this would mean less business for hospitals, therapists and other medical personnel, which might have a negative impact on their income. On the whole, though, reducing the number of injuries seems to be a moral good on utilitarian grounds.

A reduction in the number and severity of accidents would also mean fewer traffic fatalities. On the plus side, having fewer deaths seems to be a good thing—on the assumption that death is bad. On the minus side, funeral homes will see their business postponed and the reduction in deaths could have other impacts on such things as the employment rate (more living people means more competition for jobs). However, I will take the controversial position that fewer deaths is probably good.

While a reduction in the number and severity of accidents would mean less and lower repair bills for vehicle owners, this also entails reduced business for vehicle repair businesses. Roughly put, every dollar saved in repairs (and replacement vehicles) by self-driving cars is a dollar lost by the people whose business it is to fix (and replace) damaged vehicles. Of course, the impact depends on how much a business depends on accidents—vehicles will still need regular maintenance and repairs. People will presumably still spend the money that they would have spent on repairs and replacements, and this would shift the money to other areas of the economy. The significance of this would depend on the amount of savings resulting from the self-driving vehicles.

Another economic impact of self-driving vehicles will be in the area of those who make money driving other people. If my truck is fully autonomous, rather than take a cab to the airport, I can simply have my own truck drop me off and drive home. It can then come get me at the airport. People who like to drink to the point of impairment will also not need cabs or services like Uber—their own vehicle can be their designated driver. A new sharing economy might arise, one in which your vehicle is out making money while you do not need it. People might also be less inclined to use airlines or busses—if your car can safely drive you to your destination while you sleep, play video games, read or even exercise (why not have exercise equipment in a vehicle for those long trips?). No more annoying pat downs, cramped seating, delays or cancellations.

As a final point, if self-driving vehicles operate within the traffic laws (such as speed limits and red lights) automatically, then the revenue from tickets and traffic violations will be reduced significantly. Since vehicles will be loaded with sensors and cameras, passengers (one cannot describe them as drivers anymore will have considerable data with which to dispute any tickets. Parking revenue (fees and tickets) might also be reduced—it might be cheaper for a vehicle to just circle around or drive home than to park. This reduction in revenue could have a significant impact on municipalities—they would need to find alternative sources of revenue (or come up with new violations that self-driving cars cannot counter). Alternatively, the policing of roads might be significantly reduced—after all, if there are far fewer accidents and few violations, then fewer police would be needed on traffic patrol. This would allow officers to engage in other activities or allow a reduction of the size of the force. The downside of force reduction would that the former police officers would be out of a job.

If all vehicles become fully self-driving, there might no longer be a need for traffic lights, painted lane lines or signs in the usual sense. Perhaps cars would be pre-loaded with driving data or there would be “broadcast pods” providing data to them as needed. This could result in considerable savings, although there would be the corresponding loss to those who sell, install and maintain these things.

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