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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  1. s. wallerstein


    I don’t drive at all and like you, I hate driving.

    Could you do a future post with more details on why you hate driving? I suspect that lurking in the closet, there are lots more people, especially the kind of people who read philosophy blogs, who hate driving and who would welcome your
    anti-driving manifesto.

  2. Mike, I really enjoyed this exploration. However, I think you focused on areas where we would lose things we have now, but not what we would gain. You mentioned a possible sharing economy. What else would we gain? The cars will still need regular maintenance repairs, but of a different sort than we have now. We might see increased public transportation with self-driving busses that run everywhere 24/7. I think we would need to be really imaginative to realize all the new gains and benefits this technology could afford. We will see it change the economy, and while some jobs we have now will be lost, I also think jobs we don’t have now will be added.

  3. Mike,

    I drive 28 miles (1 hour) to and from work everyday (56 miles round trip). I have become increasingly agitated (putting it mildly) over the course of the last few years. So, I do empathize with your view on driving. That said:

    1. If autonomous cars become the norm, people will use the car more (as you yourself have indicated would be the case for yourself). As not all autonomous cars are electric (or other non CO2 emitting technology), that will result in an increase in the amount of CO2 we are producing. Obviously not to our benefit. Now, if it was a requirement that all autonomous cars were non-CO2 emitting, that would be fine.

    2. If autonomous cars become the norm, and we do in fact see an increase in the numbers of cars on the road (Have no idea how much more), what impact will that have on all the previously stated safety metrics? More cars (human driven at least) has historically resulted in more accidents. How many autonomous cars can our public roadways handle?

    3. Autonomous cars are not completely self contained (as I understand the current state of the technology). What I mean by that is they still take “cues” from their surroundings (both visual and “electronic”) in order to navigate the environment. As such, I believe that traffic lights, painted lines and such will still be necessary, particularly for pedestrians. I’m assuming people will still be walking places.

    Not sure these points are valid, but time will tell.

  4. I also hate driving. I hate how culturally embedded it is in America and the fact that most men find it embarrassing to admit they hate driving. I often wish we had opted for rail rather than highways in Eisenhower’s day.

  5. I neither like driving nor dislike it. To me it seems it is something that I do. I have a pretty decent car which will go almost anywhere roads or rough ground. I would not go driving just for the pleasure of it, generally speaking, there is always something I want to do, which entails driving. Were I deprived of my car I would be most displeased and would feel highly inconvenienced. I don’t mind being driven provided I don’t have to sit in the back of the car where there is no door from which I can readily exit; I don’t like being deprived of my freedom, which I don’t think has got much to do with driving although I suppose the possession of a car does give one quite a bit of freedom. I take care to adhere to speed regulations and traffic directions and generally try to drive safely. I would be interested in acquiring a driverless car but speaking as a person who likes to be in charge I would additionally like the option of being able to drive the car myself if I wished. I don’t know whether this option comes with driverless cars perhaps someone can tell me. Sometimes when driving it is necessary to make personal contact with other drivers which is mainly done by hand signals or perhaps flashing the headlights. Again I’m not sure how a driverless car copes in such situations. When I leave my house to go shopping or to the gym it is necessary (I drive on the left) to make a right-hand turn into an extremely busy road again contact with other drivers and the manner in which they are driving often occurs– for instance is he going to let me go, or has he no intention whatsoever of doing this. To wait until it is perfectly safe to make this right-hand turn would entail waiting there for a very long time and I have wondered how a driverless car copes with such a circumstance. I do my main shopping about once a week without the car this would be an impossibility. The shopping is far too heavy to carry the only alternative would seem to be to take a wheelbarrow with me which of course is ridiculous. I find it hard to imagine how people without a car manage. When I was working there were a number of people in the organisation who did not have cars although they could afford them. Many of these people were constantly cadging for lifts were always on the lookout for someone who could collect them from home take them to work and then back again in the evening. I used oblige from time to time but it occurred to me what an inconvenient life they were living.
    It must be many years since I last used public transport. I suppose if one lives in a very large city it may well be more economical and convenient to use public transport, or walk, rather than desperately seek a suitable place to park one’s car.

  6. s. wallerstein

    Don Bird,

    You say that you find it hard to imagine how someone without a car manages.

    Not exactly a philosophical question per se, but I’ve lived without a car for 69 years. I live in an urban area (Santiago de Chile), walk a lot of places (although with less energy than I used to) and use the metro.

    Unlike you, I go to the supermarket more than once a week, generally twice and also make two weekly trips to an open-air produce market near my home, carrying the packages in spite of an increasingly aching back. It’s good exercise and I don’t go to a gym.

    I don’t cadge lifts from people, although I generally stick close to the metro (underground) routes. A few nights ago I had to go out at 1:30 AM because a friend had an emergency problem. In my neighborhood there are young people on the street corner drinking and smoking marijuana all night long, but I know lots of them and I offered one double normal taxi fare if he would drive me where I needed to go and he took me there, seemingly very happy to receive an unexpected sum of money (probably to buy more beer).

  7. Will do. One reason is that as a runner, vehicles are my natural enemy. 🙂

  8. Joseph Patrick Pascale,

    Good points. I think you are right about a 24/7 public transport system and I did not mention that self-driving buses might become more competitive with airlines-they would not need to pay drivers (though there would be the initial cost of automation). Initially, though, self-driving vehicles will probably be required to have a human backup in case of system failures.

  9. David,

    True, there could be an increase in the use of vehicles. This might be offset by greater efficiency in their operation (less stop and start, idling and such) and, as you note, future vehicles might be more eco-friendly.

    Increased vehicle traffic could result in more accidents (recently a Google car had an incident with another self-driving car), but this should be offset by the safety features of autonomous vehicles. Maybe.

    Quite right-they would initially need all the cues that we human drivers now use and pedestrians will, as you say, need them to know when to walk or not walk. But, I suspect that if autonomous cars become a big thing that there will be a gradual change in traffic signals for vehicles. But, then again, they might need to still keep them for people who bike and for motorcycles.

  10. Gene,

    True-when people learn I don’t like to drive, they usually think something is wrong with me. But, I own my way of life-I’m even openly gamer.

  11. I got through my undergrad and grad years with no car, though I did have to get rides to the airport and the occasional store that was beyond biking distance. For a while I had a little Yamaha, but after an accident in the rain and many near death experiences with cars trying to drive through me, I reluctantly bought a truck-mainly to have some “armor” between me and people who seemed quite willing to kill me.

  12. I may as well detonate this one.

    What are the implications of the self driving bomb?

  13. What is all this thing about “hating” to drive? I LOVE to drive. It defines my freedom.

    People who say they “hate” driving obviously are always stuck in city traffic (news: I use public transport in the city!).

    People who have never experienced the pleasure of driving a supercar at full blast on a twisting mountain pass or on a winding country road, or on a race track, cannot understand.

    The speed, the acceleration, the adrenaline as you aim for the apex at every corner with the car sliding on the limit… the incredible feeling of your senses on high alert, the hand-eye coordination, the blending of man and technology, of being “one” with your sportscar as you take it to its limits… what is there to “hate”? It’s the best thing ever!

    The communist-dystopia horrors that are self-driving cars are threatening to destroy one of the most beautiful and challenging experiences of the modern man. I for one will NEVER buy one. Call me a dinosaur but I will stick to my sportscars till the end of time. And I will teach my children to drive proper, real cars. To learn the skills. To become real DRIVERS, in charge of their own vehicles.

    Sure, self-driving cars (but also buses, trains, taxis) will be great in congested cities. But a future where these things take over the entire road network, including all the beautiful open roads where real drivers can enjoy some fun, we will fight that to the end. It will not happen.

  14. Andy,

    Well, I should clarify. I hate to drive because, well, other people. I do enjoy recreational vehicle use: one thing I really miss about Maine is snowmobiling in the winter. I’d probably enjoying racing through empty streets in a sports car-perhaps I’ll get a chance at that just before Google kills us all.

    To use an analogy, I hate to drive in the same way that I hate trying to walk through large crowds of people who do not know where they are going and are not watching where they are going. I like to run through uncrowded spaces.

    Fortunately for you, fully autonomous vehicles are at least 10-15 years away and it will take even longer for manual cars to be banned (if that ever happens).

  15. To drive it’s good it gives a indipendence feeling but it’s stessful and wearisome too. If you have to drive in traffic jam or to have a really long trip each day it could be nice if your car drives itself! How many things you could do if you don’t need to be focused on driving! Self-driving cars could be really helpful, I think.

  16. No need for a shallow grave

    Please think!

    Not controlling your car means you may be restricted in your travels. Have you become an undesirable? Has it been decided you are not to leave your geographic area? Is this or that neighborhood off limits to you? Are your finances on this particular day going to interfere with an errand you must complete in order to further your financial goals?

    I am convinced that people have been propagandized into utter fools. Autonomous cars are the antithesis of personal autonomy.

    Doesn’t anyone remember how COMMUNISM FAILED?

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