Since people are talking about self-driving cars in the previous Linky Friday thread, I thought I would share a post I wrote from a couple years ago that explores a potential future and the tradeoffs:
I have a hypothetical scenario and would be interested in your thoughts.
Imagine that a company creates something that they call the Antcar. The Antcar is a self-driving car where you basically put a destination into a GPS device and it will drive you there. By and large, it is not meant to be driven. There may be controls (like a steering wheel and breaks) for an emergency, but it’s all pretty limited. The entire point is that it will take you where you want to go.
The first question is… would you want such a car? Would you trade the ability to drive for the ability to do other things while the car drives itself? Would you pay $12,000 more for the privilege? $8,000?
The second question, though, is the real question. Let’s say the Antcar (and its competitors) work very well. They’ve been on the market for a while and now the premium is down to $8,000 per car. The initial hopes that it would cut down on automobile accidents was premature. They don’t always play well with human drivers. The Antcar manufacturers, meanwhile, start a pilot program in an eastern European city and then a few cities where Drivercars are banned and only Antcars are allowed on their roads. The results are astonishing in terms of safety improvements. Traffic engineers in the United States start proposing that the US consider doing the same.
Below are some factors to consider. Feel free to point off if I am way off-base about something, but for the sake of this hypothetical accept what I say as true. I’m less interested in how you think Antcars would really work and more interested in how you would evaluate the tradeoffs.
Pro: Safety! Car-against-car accidents reduce by 90%. Cars running off the road reduce by 98%. Pedestrian accidents reduce by only about 10%, but the victims of remaining accidents are caused by pedestrian error. Accidents where pedestrians follow the correct traffic signals are reduced by 98% (the remaining 2% are Antcar malfunctions). No drive drivers, no exhausted drivers, no reckless drivers results in considerable safety improvements.
Neither: Operation costs are roughly the same. The taxes to account for increased costs of road maintenance are offset by much lower insurance premiums.
Con: The cars are more expensive. In today’s dollars, you can add about $8,000 to the cost of any given car. However, the increased safety means that driving smaller cars becomes more possible. So while a 4-door economy car might cost $20,000, you can get a 2-seat Smart-size car for $15,000 and a one-seat bucket car for about $12,000. Nobody would have to buy the Antcar right away because there would be a ten-year transition period, but you would have to factor these higher prices into future cars purchased.
Pro: A more productive populace. People can (sorta) work in their cars. I say “sorta” because they can’t lay papers out everywhere or anything cause the car would be turning and breaking and even if there were some signals to alert the driver, it could be kind of tough in a lot of circumstances. They can unwind during the drive rather than when they get home. Cell phone calls are now guilt-free.
Pro: The makers of the (capital-A) Antcar enjoy a market advantage but not an absolute one. They’re willing to submit to standards so that their cars can cooperate with cars made by other companies. They already do somewhat, but they understand that the standards are going to become much more rigid. In other words, they would not have a monopolistic advantage.
Con: The government would have to administer these standards. A cynical person would point out that they may not always necessarily do so with the public interest in mind.
Con: Everywhere an individual driver goes becomes a matter of record. Law enforcement and courts can subpoena it the same way that they can subpoena phone records. A drug dealer is arrested and theoretically they can look through the records and see everybody that’s visited that house or street in the last thirty days or longer or whatever the records say. Divorce proceedings could unmask precisely where the husband or wife has been. And so on. Definite loss of privacy.
Pro: The ability to investigate where people have been would help the police solve crimes. It could also help innocent people establish alibis.
Con: No more driving. No more getting a turbo-engine car that you can rev up. These cars would still be available, but you really couldn’t drive them anywhere. The engines in the Antcar (and its competitors) would be pretty standard in terms of capabilities. Having a muscle car would not be nearly as advantageous since the cars would be navigating in a more cooperative manner.
Pro: Significantly reduced traffic times. No more accidents means no more accidents causing delays. No red lights at intersections where nobody is coming. Lane merges because much less painful. Eventually it will get to the point that traffic lanes themselves are no longer necessary, though the antcars are not yet ready for that.
Con: Riding in inclement weather can become difficult or impossible in some circumstances. These things are directed by satellite so things that disrupt a satellite signal would make the car not work. When signals are lost and are cutting in and out, the car can let you direct it (you tell it to turn right ahead and then you tell it when to turn left and so on), but it’s a real hassle.
So… what do you think? Here are some options, though I’d like you to elaborate if you have any further thoughts.
a) I would absolutely support banning drivercars. Safety is a premium consideration. Not just the lives saved, but the freedom from fear on being on the road after 2am would absolutely make it worth it.
b) I would probably support banning drivercars. I’m concerned about some aspect of it or another, though.
c) I couldn’t support banning drivercars on libertarian grounds. People should never lose the freedom to drive (and conceal where they’ve been) even if it results in the loss of life and a significant reduction of accidents.
d) I can’t support it because I don’t trust our government to play fair with standards and not play favorites.
e) It’s hard to answer your question because you didn’t explore what I would consider to be a significant factor and/or your prediction on some aspect or another is so far off-base I can’t suspend my disbelief that far.
f) What’s an Antcar? I’ve never heard of that. I don’t think this technology exists. I also don’t understand the meaning of the word “hypothetical.”
g) I refuse to recognize your hypothetical because that’s not how it would happen and I would much prefer to litigate that issue rather than put any thought into the post you wrote.