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Optimistic thoughts about self-driving cars

Self driving cars are coming and they are good.

Safety is an obvious benefit. Some people I have talked to about this talk about overcoming fear to get into a self-driving car. But over a million people per year are killed on the road. It is clearly technically possible to make a car very safe: if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once. You can’t do that with people, who make the same mistakes over and over again. Furthermore I don’t anticipate anyone marketing a self-driving car until it is orders of magnitude safer than a human because in the case of an accident the reputational damage to the developer would be so high. I expect self-driving car accidents to be reported in the press even more vigorously than exploding batteries in cellphones are today. And cases of exploding batteries, even in the case of the infamous Samsung Note 7, are vanishingly rare. If car accidents were anywhere near as rare as that we would already be living in a much better world. And that’s just safety.

I think self-driving cars have the capability to completely change the landscape. Charlie Stross talks about what a time traveller from thirty years ago would notice when they visited. Such a traveller might notice different fashions but the urban landscape would be very much the same. To paraphrase Charlie, the most obvious difference would be that people are walking around staring into glowing bits of glass as if they were windows onto the sum-total of human knowledge.

Thirty years from now things could look very different indeed.

No-one will own their own cars any more — at least not as a matter of course. When the only advantage of owning one’s own car is the ability to store one’s own junk in it, it simply won’t be worth the cost. It is already possible to do some short commutes by Uber for a few thousand pounds per year, rivalling private car ownership. A company could operate a fleet of self-driving cars on a very similar model and make big savings on scale. So for any given journey you just tap your destination and select what kind of vehicle you would like, and it would roll up to your door in a few minutes. No paperwork, no maintenance, no re-fuelling, no keeping a big car for the occasional times you need it, and no difficulty moving a large object because hiring a specialist vehicle is equally straightforward.

For that matter, cars can be far more specialised because they don’t need to look like cars any more. No-one has to sit in the driver’s seat looking out and it won’t crash so you don’t have to wear seat-belts. If you need to do some work on the way to your destination, hire an office on wheels. If you want to travel by night, hire a hotel room on wheels. Some journeys don’t need to be made by people at all: to drop off a parcel, hire a self-driving locker. Forget drone deliveries, Amazon will use self-driving delivery vehicles.

There is no longer any need for car parks or cars parked along residential streets. Our time traveller will wonder where all the cars have gone: children will be playing in the streets once more and houses will have gardens where once there were driveways.

I am not sure how busy the roads will look. Automated cars can travel close together and co-ordinate with each other so there will be no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. But as travelling is easier and cheaper people will do it more. People will live further from their place of work because journey times will be shorter and consistent. No more leaving half an hour earlier *in case* of a traffic jam. You will know exactly how long it will take every single day. If people put up with two hour commutes today, there is no reason to think they won’t in future. But that two hours will reliably get them a lot further. So it will be easier to change jobs because a given house will be in range of more jobs, and it will be easy to have offices in different locations because a given office will be in range of more houses. There will still be advantages to working close together, and people often don’t like *living* close together, so perhaps people will continue to work in cities but live in them less.

Towns and cities will look different because much of the land used for roads can be reclaimed for other uses. There is no need for giant roundabouts or other large, complicated junctions that are used today to improve traffic flow. In many cases even roads with two lanes can be converted to narrow, single lanes because bi-directional traffic can pass at specific points. We can finally get rid of the temporary Hogarth Roundabout flyover.

Cars will probably be mostly electric because they can drive off and recharge themselves. I suspect they will travel very fast on highways because there is no safety disadvantage and people will demand shorter journey times.

Today, old people can find themselves immobile. Children have to scrounge lifts. With self-driving cars, anyone can go anywhere. You can send your children to a better school in the next town instead of nearly bankrupting yourself moving into the catchment area.

There are likely to be problems along the way. My vision so far relies somewhat on all vehicles on the road being automated. I think there will be a short time during which automated vehicles will have to co-exist with human-driven ones, but the advantages will be so huge and so immediately apparent that people will switch to exclusively using automated cars faster than they adopted smartphones.

I am not sure how well things will work out for people living in remote areas. Right now I can get an Uber in three minutes. This is because of the population density where I am. People in the sticks will have to wait longer for a ride and costs will be higher. But, then again, population distribution and economics are likely to change.

Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.

There will be technical difficulties making the first car that can completely self-drive on any road. There are software, infrastructure and mapping problems to solve. If there were no human driven cars the problem would be easier, but I think there will be a few years when human and automatic cars will have to co-exist. Only a few years: but it is still a hurdle. However, there are people who are working on it and they think it is possible and they are making progress. There is no reason to think it is impossible. And the benefits are so huge and so universal that it is hard to imagine any amount of human effort into this problem that won’t quickly be paid back. We won’t be able to predict the moment of success but when it comes, change will be fast.

There may be computer security challenges, but in an intelligence race between bad guys and good guys I have some confidence that the good guys will ultimately win. Failures here will be as embarrassing as car crashes or exploding batteries to manufacturers.

The government will regulate where you can go and track your every move. This is a problem anyway: self-driving cars don’t fundamentally change it. And people always choose convenience over freedom and privacy so it is going to happen anyway.

How many man-hours are wasted sitting in control of a vehicle or being stuck in traffic? Further economic growth will come from the time and effort freed up. Self-driving cars are coming, and they are good.

77 comments to Optimistic thoughts about self-driving cars

  • Fred the Fourth

    Our own old-age plans about where we can live are changing specifically because of the advent of self-driving cars. In our current location we’d be trapped if we lost the ability to drive.
    There’s so much froth in this tech development that a temporarily vacant house just down my road is now occupied by a self-driving-car tech startup. I told them that if they can safely navigate the local road, I’ll be impressed. It’s steep, poorly marked, plenty of blind turns, full of sloppy drivers, elderly dog-walkers, the occasional cyclist, and even the local school’s cross-country running team comes up here once in a while.

  • I think that the driver will be insurance.

    We will get to the point where self-driving cars will have lower insurance costs than actual drivers. It will always be a matter of hitting the price point.

    As soon as that point is reached then self-driving cars will become the rule rather than the exception and as the number of human drivers falls and the number of self-driving cars rises, the costs will become more and more exaggerated.

    Insurance is about risk and as the technology improves it will become more costly to drive yourself than to be driven.

    I look forward to that day, but I fear it as well because driving can be a real pleasure in itself.

  • Watchman


    I worry a lot of your vision about improvements (e.g. towns and cities looking nicer due to road changes) echoes the modernist thinking of Le Corbusier, that technology will allow us to design a more utopian society, rather than the postmodernist reality that technology actually designs the society in conjunction with the will of the people. For example, I am not sure in thirty years you’re going to get people to stop driving, unless we somehow elect a Green government. Many people enjoy driving after all, and much of the enjoyment is freedom and control, which might not equate to driving round a track (which has a lot less freedom in choice of route, and certainly less impressive scenery than say a road through Snowdonia on a lovely spring day like today).

    I’m also unsure about the idea that we can efficiently rent cars to replace our own vastly reducing the number of cars on the streets, as this will require effectively a stock of cars equal to the maximum flow of cars now (assuming all else is equal, obviously) plus some surplus to allow for journeys to start in the period after the maximum flow but whilst stock involved in the maximum flow is unavailable to get to the start of the journeys. And if you have different types of car then you have to allow appropriate amounts for each individual maximum flow. I am not convinced the reduction would be that great. This is assuming that the systems to allow hiring the cars are efficient enough to ensure you can always get a car when needed (after all, maximum flow might increase); unless there is confidence in this people will want the convenience of their own cars, even if they don’t want to drive them (not to mention that if you are spending time in it, a customised unit of your own is going to be preferable). You are just considering cars as units of utility – I think you are ignoring consumers’ desire for status, luxury and convenience here. Also, the model of having cars take non-owners around then move on to another journey already exists – it’s called a taxi service or hire cars, and whilst an improved service would lead to greater usage, I can’t see evidence that this would become a norm from existing patterns of usage.

    Overall I think you are correct self-driving electrical (generally) cars will be the norm, with the resultant increase in time for other activities and perhaps also a resultant change in the effective commuting range from a centre very important. This will be somewhat transformative (although I normally travel by train, so a lot of this sounds quite familiar – but I know I am constrained by the presence of train tracks). But this vision of the future is assuming transformative changes in a way that I think discounts the important role of the individual (I especially like the idea that people will be content to all travel in line, because humans never get impatient…) – it is a vision shaped by only considering the technological possibilities. And to be honest the vision that comes to me reading it is of a 1960s model of a future society, with the inevitable assumption of central authority.

  • Watchman

    John Galt,

    I am not sure it will just be insurance: after all, a self-driving car should be cheaper to maintain as it will drive more efficiently, whilst people happily pay a premium for certain products and a self-drive car might be one of these. If insurance was the one determinator in the decision of what car to drive, a lot of cars I see on the road quite regularly should not exist (anything with a high resale value, large horsepower etc).

    But there will be a price point (there always is), albeit probably one only determinable after it happens due to being a combination of factors, and that in fact being simply the median price point of a whole load of individual price points as individual actors make a decision.

    Oh, and if you want to keep on driving, do so – it’ll be safer because all these cars around you will have more reliable drivers…

  • Grumpy

    So, while you guys are all serious, I’m picturing a self-driving white van with “Free candy” written on the side.

  • AGN

    The self-driving car is a dream for the Deep State. Nothing has done so much for individual freedom as the private car, and now they can take it away from us – through the means of insurance cost as John Galt points out.

    Obviously, you can program a self-driving car to go anywhere you want. Well, except obviously in these terrorist times, Buckingham Palace will be off the menu. And Downing St. And anywhere senior politicians live. And anywhere senior industrialists live. And anywhere famous people live… you get the drift. “I am sorry, I can’t let you go there, Dave.”

    And in times of crisis, perhaps you can’t be allowed to use a car at all. Perhaps there should be a general rationing of car use, for safety and security of the planet. Do you really need to make that journey?

    No, I am sorry. Self-driving cars will be a disaster for libertarians. :/

  • I must admit that I gave up owning a car some years ago as the costs (depreciation, insurance, tax, parking, etc.) no longer made any sense to me.

    I have since used a combination of limited car hire, but primarily public transport and my savings (and protection of privacy since I buy tickets with cash) are significant, something around £2,000-£3,000 per year.

    There are inconveniences obviously, primarily to do with the purchase of large amounts of shopping at any one time, but I have adjusted my own weekly shop to match and large items, such as multiple boxes of wine, usually a case of 24 bottles, I now purchase through Aldi Online Wine Service and are delivered in boxes by Royal Mail to my home in Perth, Scotland.

    In short, possession of a car has become a personal indulgence that I have done away with, not for environmental reasons, but for economic ones.

    I do not regret the decision.

  • Watchman


    The flaw in your concern is the nature of secure software. It is either secure or it can be externally accessed. If government can access the software (externally) the same access can be used by others. And if the software driving your car is externally accessible then your car is not safe. If the cars are not safe they won’t get used.

    I don’t disagree government (what the hell is deep state and how does it dream?) would love the picture you paint. But the need for safety would make it impossible to reprogramme a car in a way the owner cannot control, unless they are made by Apple…

  • Mr Ed

    I remember seeing a tv interview with a South African Indian businessman, who despite his wealth, could not live where he wished due to grand apartheid and petty apartheid made for all manner of everyday humiliations, but he said that the one time that he felt free was when driving out in his Mercedes, his car was his window on freedom.

    Now imagine if self-driving car technology had existed back then, the social workers of apartheid, who in reality had not either managed or imagined racial segregation of motorway lanes, would probably have made his car give way to Whites.

  • Paul Marks

    It is interesting (at least to me) that I would have found it lot less difficult to move around in the 1950s (or even the 1920s – or even before the First World War) than I do today. This is because the modern world is designed for car drivers – and I am not one, which means that getting to towns and villages is very difficult indeed for me now. I can look at a Harold Lloyd film from 1920s and as well as noting how well dressed and slim most ordinary people were (and documentary films show that this was NOT a Hollywood thing), I also note how easy it was for them to move around.

    Goods were carried around by train – including special underground trains for delivering cargo straight to business enterprises in London (plus vacuum tubes for some small objects) and Chicago – most people in Chicago today do not even know that business enterprises used to get stuff underground, not by vans stuck in traffic. Today even the business mail is delivered by lorry in London – which is absurd.

    Humans mostly travelled by forms of mass transit (trains, trolley cars and so on) much faster than people travel in modern cities – where people are stuck in cars jammed on the “free” roads.

    It is interesting looking at films from the 1920s United States (or even before) – it is like looking at a science fiction world, as opposed to the primitive societies we have now.

    And buildings a century ago were not flat roofed boxes (post cards from almost every American town or city are more attractive a century ago than the same places are now – even the factories were not ruins, they actually made things) – but that is another discussion.

  • AGN


    No re-programming needed! The banning of certain roads and routes can happen as part of regular (possibly on-the-fly) updates of the mapping data. After all, there will be a perfectly legitimate need to close off roads from time to time for repairs, etc.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Watchman, some interesting thoughts, thanks. I think economics drives people’s behaviour and city planning, so if I am wrong then it is about the relative costs of things. Also I imagining that cars will be individually autonomous but will co-operate for mutual benefit, rather than being centrally controlled. There may be some game theory about cars competing to beat each other through traffic but internet packets mostly co-operate somehow so I think it can work.

  • Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.

    Over my dead body. The journey is the pleasure on a motorcycle – not going round a track. This vision of the future is a dystopian nightmare.

  • Alisa

    Also I imagining that cars will be individually autonomous but will co-operate for mutual benefit, rather than being centrally controlled.

    They will be centrally controlled – not because they must be, but because they can be, much more easily than the actual humans they will be transporting.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Albeit I’ve never so much as mounted a motorcycle — my personal ride is a low-end ’99 Camry — Longrider is absolutely 1000% correct. And Mr Ed and AGN have stated my concerns also. Also Watchman’s first comment is excellent.

    Driving is a pain when you are stuck in the Rush-Hour Parking Lot (and nowadays, the bigger cities seem to have a 24-hour Rush Hour), and when your vehicle is like mine, whose driver’s seat has long-since been sprung.

    Other than that, driving is somewhere between a welcome period of peace and quiet, and a downright joy. (Or, in a few cases, a bit more exciting than one would think particularly necessary. A good ol’ rear-wheel drive Chevy in the heaviest and wettest and deepest and slipperiest of late-May (!) snowfalls hereabouts provided one such thrilling driving experience, although I must report that in the end I prevailed on getting up the hill, with cars mired in snow-filled ditches to the right of me, to the left of me, and all about. The guys in the gas station at the top of the hill said, “We’ve been watching you. We were making on book on whether you’d make it or not.” Heh-heh-heh *dusts fingernails against lapel with an air of self-satisfaction* :>))!!

  • David Roberts

    I think you are barking up the wrong tree here. If battery technology enables electric cars with an acceptable range then human carrying self flying drones become possible. The roads become like current canals. The software, I would suggest becomes much simpler and journeys are quicker and the possibilities for congestion are significantly reduced.

  • Eric Tavenner

    Those self-driving cars may work in a urban setting but out in the country they just aren’t going to work, I’ve lived in places where it was 50 miles to the nearest city with a decent selection of stores.

    Watchman, I guarantee you that the Anointed Minions of the Holy State Almighty are going to require the manufacturers put, if highly secure, backdoors in the system for them to use.
    Call me paranoid but I will never use any vehicle that someone that I do not know can take control of.
    In general I agree with everything said above in opposition to the idea.

  • Watchman


    If government controls software at source, they can control the system,but all the evidence we have is that government is incapable of controlling software and even more incapable of effectively producing the stuff.


    Whilst you’re right that relative costs determine decisions, the issue with predicting things in future is that perceived values of any particular feature such as personal freedom or convenience can occupy a huge hypothetical range. To take an example, the desire for autonomy may encourage people to reject the centralised decision making you suggest technically autonomous cars would likely adopt and any attempted government interference as suggested by AGN would exacerbate this valuation on autonomy.

    I suspect my less ‘modernistic’ interpretation of the effect of driverless cars probably reflects my view that the valuation of autonomy and freedom is going to increase and that as stated above that government will not have the ability to restrict this.

  • Watchman


    Government may want that, but you cannot have a secure door into a programme. If government can open it so can I or you. And also, as software is intellectual property, government cannot just demand access to it. Rule of law and all that…

  • Shlomo Maistre

    Millions of people are going to lose their jobs when self-driving vehicles become widespread.

    It’s not just what is already happening to taxi drivers in big cities what with Uber and Lyft. It’s also bus drivers for schools and companies. Plus, of course, truck drivers. There are over 3 million truck drivers in the United States alone. For many of these truck drivers, due to personal obligations, it’s not easy or even in some cases realistic (job training costs money and time some of them don’t have and sometimes an IQ that they don’t have) to learn a new trade or skill while working as a truck driver to be prepared for when truck driving is replaced by robots.

    Will self-driving vehicles accelerate economic growth? Yes.
    Will self-driving vehicles benefit most people? Yes.
    Will self-driving vehicles seriously harm the economic well-being of some people? Yes.

    I’m personally happy with the near-certain prospect of widespread self-driving vehicles. It’s good for the economy and good for most people and good for me, but it’s not all sunshine and roses from where I sit. The livelihoods of real individuals and their families are going to be ripped apart. And so it goes.

  • Cal

    Rob, that’s a very rose-tinted view of the future. I foresee something much less good, and much less libertarian. You’re also very optimistic about the technology. The AI problems facing self-driving cars are enormous. Don’t be taken in by industry hype.

  • Cal

    Also, where do you get ‘Children will be playing in the street once more?’ I’d say the opposite is more likely. Streets will become no-go zones for humans. You’ll only be allowed to cross at the designated points.

  • Fred Z

    Cal has it. The human brain is barely able to cope with driving a car and it is many orders of magnitude more powerful than our best AIs.

  • bobby b

    Some of the more entertaining science fiction revolves around dystopian societies that consist of a wealthy 5% living the pleasurable life of the rich while surrounded by the poor 95% who barely scrounge by while providing cheap services for the 5%.

    The sheer cost of transportation provided by computerized, servo’ed, centrally-controlled electric vehicles will guarantee that it will only be the 5% who receive transportation from them. The rest of the world will never be able to afford such vehicles.

    As the rich seek to exclude any vehicles piloted by actual humans from their domain, we’ll see rich cities excluding everyone but those rich five-percenters and their pedestrian hired help.

    My bet is that the social stratification driven by driverless vehicles will be the final nudge into a revolution in which the five-percenters are finally killed off.

  • bobby b

    Check out NPR’s effort to chart, over time, the most common job in each US state: here.

    Note that the most common “common job” is, today, “Truck Driver.”

    For this dystopia to become a utopia, millions of not-very-skilled-other-than-driving drivers will have to happily accept unemployment and poverty.

    Most have guns.

  • Madrocketsci

    Why is it a desirable change to be driven by externally imposed costs from ownership of the means of mobility to tenancy? Desirable for those who currently own their cars, I mean.

  • TimR

    Reading the post and comments I was imagining a most entertaining introduction period of the driverless vehicles. Who would not be tempted to try and ram one, just to see what it would cost?

    And to Longrider, +1. They can have the keys to my 1832cc six cylinder fuel guzzling Honda Goldwing touring bike when they… you get the idea.

  • TimR

    I am somewhat disturbed that so many here have expressed a willingness to give up what I consider the great freedom of driving.

  • I am somewhat disturbed that so many here have expressed a willingness to give up what I consider the great freedom of driving.

    As with most things driving is only a pleasure given the right circumstances and something which is a pleasure when you are twenty, happy and horny is very different when you are fifty, cynical and no longer wandering around in a testosterone haze.

    For myself, I used to enjoy it but then found that congestion, parking, insurance costs, punitive DVLA rules, average speed cameras, blood alcohol limits, etc., etc. took what pleasure I had away.

    I was spending £2,000-£3,000 per year to have a means of transporting my weekly shopping from the supermarket back home. Looking at it from a purely economic perspective it was idiotic.

    If I need a car, I rent one. Mostly though I let the bus, train or taxi driver have the hassle.

    The only exception is the winters spent in Penang, Malaysia where I use a motorcycle due to levels of congestion that make even buses and taxis unreliable (since there are no dedicated use bus and taxi lanes).

    In my home in Perth, Scotland where I live in the heart of this small city and I am a few hundred yards walking distance from both the train and bus stations as well as similar distance to four major supermarkets having a car is an extravagance, plus I’d have nowhere to park it as my tenement apartment (built in 1895) has only space for about 30 cars in what was presumably a garden / communal drying area when the building was first constructed.

  • Mr Ed

    As with most things driving is only a pleasure given the right circumstances

    TimR did not say that the freedom of driving is a pleasure, but a great freedom. Freedom may be a joy to be treasured without being a pleasure.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Cal: “where do you get ‘Children will be playing in the street once more?’”

    In the UK many residential streets have very little traffic but are lined with parked cars. Space will be freed up and there will be no chance of getting run over.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Btw you don’t need AI to do self driving cars. It’s a problem of aggregating sensor data and plotting a route.

  • James g

    Walter Block blames the lack of innovation and appalling safety record on the fact that roads are nationalised. He points out that private companies would be less likely to tolerate so many deaths and would innovate or restrict them away.

    I’ve wondered why seatbelt design has not changed for so long. Is it because design regulation prevents improvements?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    TimR: is the freedom of driving so special? You only get to drive on government built roads, following government rules.

    Yes, you can go where you want and there is a sensation of freedom. Self driving cars will allow more people to go where they want, albeit not in direct control of the engine and steering.

  • James g


  • James g

    Isn’t the experience of innovation that the masses pretty much get the same things as the rich, just cheaper versions with less branding bling?

  • Alisa

    John Galt:

    As with most things driving is only a pleasure given the right circumstances and something which is a pleasure when you are twenty, happy and horny is very different when you are fifty, cynical and no longer wandering around in a testosterone haze.

    It is for you. These days I rarely drive my old car, more or less for the reasons you mention. But I do very much value actually having it, and being able to drive it myself, whenever and wherever I want, if the need arises.

    Bobby B., although I should certainly be counted with the detractors here, the point about truck drivers is not convincing, presuming Rob’s self-driving panacea is not coming next month or next year, but at least several years down the road: truck drivers do die like the rest of us, you know, and their children (if any) don’t necessarily become truck drivers themselves.

  • Mr Ecks

    Following a wire or doing a few moves is one thing. Full-on driving is another. Software fail and for a long time to come.

    It is a load of hype from the companies and –much more sinister–the scum of the state . Who see their chance to take the car back off individuals.

    Welcoming such a development is in itself proof of dangerous naivete.

  • Alisa

    It is a case of having a hammer and looking for a nail – in other words, technology and change for the sake of technology and change. Noting wrong with that in and of itself – this is what techno-geeks are and what they do, and I truly love them for that, because for the most part they have been making all our lives much, much better in so many ways. In particular, I have nothing against self-driving vehicles per se, and I would most likely find them useful to some extent, as would many other people – even though at the moment it is far from clear that this development is driven by any significant demand from actual consumers.

    In a free society, there need not be an initial demand for a new product – geeks being geeks offer the products of their geekery to the general or some specific population, which in turn adopts it with whatever measure of enthusiasm, or totally rejects it. Problem is, Western societies are not totally free (although still much freer than others), and governments do use their dirty paws to tip the scales of whatever competition any new product faces to their own advantage – which in the case of self-driving cars, as far as I can see, is far from being the advantage of freedom-seeking individuals.

  • Alisa

    is the freedom of driving so special? You only get to drive on government built roads, following government rules.

    Ahem, I have a 4X4, so I also drive off government-built roads. And, I only follow government rules when it suits me – YMMV 😛

  • Grzeis Lipski

    John Galt
    April 8, 2017 at 5:48 am

    I am somewhat disturbed that so many here have expressed a willingness to give up what I consider the great freedom of driving.

    As with most things driving is only a pleasure given the right circumstances and something which is a pleasure when you are twenty, happy and horny is very different when you are fifty, cynical and no longer wandering around in a testosterone haze.

    For myself, I used to enjoy it but then found that congestion, parking, insurance costs, punitive DVLA rules, average speed cameras, blood alcohol limits, etc., etc. took what pleasure I had away.

    Life’s pleasures and life events always cross my mind. I love to drive too. I think about the ‘end of days’ scenario when I see an accident happening before my very eyes but have no control over the situation.

    OTOH just think of all that revenue US municipalities give up! :’)

  • Robbo

    In the future driving your own car will be what riding a horse is to us today – I hope.

    I would look to industrial applications of self-driving first, in mining, warehousing, docks. Controlled spaces with defined hazards. The next application would be for the long road freight runs in sparesely populated places like Alaska and Western China, and maybe for logging in Canada and Finland.

    Navigating crowded city streets is both more difficult and more hazardous, and in the US the legal system is a significant barrier: even though passenger and third-party safety is improved on average, manufacturers and suppliers will face high-dollar lawsuits from what accidents do occur.

  • lucklucky

    I am somewhat disturbed that so many here have expressed a willingness to give up what I consider the great freedom of driving.


    Self driving cars is another attack on human autonomy. Because as once more proven here their defenders want to stop human driving is their ultimate objective.

    Less freedom, less cognitive capability and much easy tracking by the state.

    So we have here a grand plan one size fits all in “Samizdata” which would be out not of place in a Communist blog…

  • the other rob

    The sheer cost of transportation provided by computerized, servo’ed, centrally-controlled electric vehicles will guarantee that it will only be the 5% who receive transportation from them. The rest of the world will never be able to afford such vehicles.

    Except that’s not how it has ever turned out in the past. Almost every innovation, when launched, is expensive and affordable only by the more wealthy. Then, as the R&D and other sunk costs are recouped, the price falls to the point where all but the most poverty stricken* can afford it.

    Just like it did in the case of ordinary cars.

    *Often them too – I doubt that there are many households on welfare that don’t have a TV.

  • MadRocketSci

    I’m not opposed to self driving cars. I think the robotics challenges are interesting. I think having more autonomous machines to help us in our tasks is a good thing.

    But, I also think the car startups (not so much companies like Toyota) are overstating how solved this problem is. There is a long way to go before computers have enough awareness of the world to truly understand what they are looking at (and hence be able to navigate anomalous or confusing situations). (Maybe by that point, they’ll want paychecks too.)

    I am very very much opposed to the future that people pushing self-driving cars also want to push: One in which we don’t own our vehicles. Ownership is *entirely orthogonal* to whether vehicles have or don’t have a particular feature. And it seems to me to be one of the main driving forces behind the push – that we can be shunted away from ownership as the next N generations of vehicles changes hands. For some reason, our culture is hostile to us owning our houses, owning our cars, owning our tools. There is a word for this: It is *serfdom*.

    The future might be filled with wonderful robotic tools. The critical question is who gets to own those tools? For some reason, it’s always the socialists that want to deprive people of the ‘means of production’, but then that is pretty much the unavoidable and obvious consequence of hostility to ownership, isn’t it?

    A future in which truck drivers own trucks with self-driving capability which they turn on and off as needed to reach their destinations is far different than a future in which gigantic monopolies own self-driving trucks and human minders are employed as minimum wage serfs.

    A future in which you own a quad-rotor VTOL vehicle (or helicopter, or aircraft) (in which it is still far more practical that it be powered by an IC engine/generator than a current generation battery – those range figures for a battery are delusional!) is far different than a future in which ownership of that vehicle is beyond your reach and you are grudgingly permitted to rent it.

    A future (or a past) filled with giant latifundia that own the vast majority of a nation’s capital is different than a future filled with widely distributed ownership and concerns of heterogeneous sizes, where equipment that is available to one is available to all.

  • Mr Ed


    Self driving cars will allow more people to go where they want, albeit not in direct control of the engine and steering.

    So where’s the ‘Yee-haa!‘ in that? 🙂

    And as and when there are collisions, incidents etc., who is to be held liable in tort and/or the criminal law?

  • Nah, no chance: computers are appalling at interpreting visual data, and that is a requirement that will never go away. I wrote about this here.

    Also, see what I wrote here last time the subject of self-driving cars came up on Samizdata.

  • CaptDMO

    “…if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once.”
    Only the FIRST of several arguments, unwittingly made in the piece, to
    limit autonomous, wireless, electric cars.

  • rxc

    I think that this future will happen relatively rapidly, once the technology is established, because governments will want it to happen. And the arguments will involve safety, jobs, “the children”, and the environment. Safety in all forms will drive it. Fewer accidents (you can’t make anything completely safe), fewer problems with people in need stranded because there is no vehicle available to get them to help, or help to them. Think of all the children who will benefit from automated rides to school/playgrounds/shops/etc, in terms of safety. They won’t have to walk anywhere until they turn 18/21/30/60. Think of all the crime that will be eliminated, once cars, and all the stuff that goes along with them, are no longer valuable?

    The jobs aspect will be just like the push for renewable energy. We will have to scrap all the old technology and build new. This will require lots of new production staff (smart people to manage the robot factories), upgrading (electronics) and/or downgrading (fewer lanes) the roads for the new system. The people who can’t contribute to this effort will just have to be taken care of by the rest who can contribute – we can retrain all those unemployed truck drivers to be social workers.

    The benefit for children will all be about safety. The possibilities here are endless

    The enviromental benefits will be huge, and will be used to club the evil people who just want to squander precious natural resources and pollute the plant for frivilous reasons (look for this phrase a LOT, in the push for public acceptance). The politicians will be able to pack more people into smaller spaces, and start to depopulate the suburbs and rural areas. The technology already exists to have airplanes fly themselves, so it will be applied to trains and ships as well, and maybe even to agriculture. They will have to do something about those pesky animals, though, who behave in quite unexpected ways – maybe it will also be time to turn the entire population into vegans, in order to eliminate that problem. Mining will become a thing of the past because we will be able to mine all those old cars for raw material for generations. It will die out as we lose the expertise to do it.

    The things that will not be mentioned, of course will be the degree of control that the Ctrl-left will assume, in conjunction with this transformation. Everyone will need to explain why they really need to travel, given all the electronic communications that are available to show you all the great natural places you used to visit. VR will give you the opportunity to experience everything without leaving your pod, or maybe even unhooking your brainstem from the web. The autonomous vehicles that will be produced will all be standardized designs – when you need one you will have to describe your plans and needs, and will be assigned an appropriate sized/configured vehicle – 5-10 different styles should be sufficient to cover everyone’s reasonable needs. They will all be produced, owned, and operated by one government-charted public corporation, which will assume all responsibility for them. You don’t pay for liability insurance when you fly, so it will all be rolled into the fee for the car rental. Accidents will be so rare that the insurance industry will likely die, as well. We should be able to retrain all those insurance salesmen to do something useful.

    Taxes will disappear, because the government will control everything. There will be no cash – only electronic credits, so governments will use their own internal systems to allocate resources, but since no one will really own anything any more, accounting will also disappear.

    Lawyers, however, will probably always be with us, like cockroaches.

    So many possibilities for ways to improve human existence, humans themselves, and save the planet. How could it ever turn bad?

  • And as and when there are collisions, incidents etc., who is to be held liable in tort and/or the criminal law?

    Indeed, when not if they kill someone. It’s just a matter of time.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Luckylucky: “have here a grand plan one size fits all in “Samizdata” which would [not] be out of place in a Communist blog”

    I’m not making a plan, I’m attempting to predict the results of the technology. Results I think will come from free choices influenced by the new cost structure resulting from the technology.

  • Chester Draws

    Truck drivers are also truck unloaders. Most delivery people will not lose their jobs just because they are no longer driving. If delivery services are made redundant it will be by drones or vehicles much smaller than cars.

    Long distance truck drivers, however, will lose their jobs. Just as (horse) teamsters did.

  • Watchman

    As I recall the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car occurred last year in Florida (it failed to pick out a truck against the sky, killing the car driver) so the question of liability is presumably already active…

  • Confused ’Old Misfit

    I really really want to see a driverless truck handle this.

  • lucklucky

    “I’m not making a plan, I’m attempting to predict the results of the technology. Results I think will come from free choices influenced by the new cost structure resulting from the technology.”

    Yes you are supporting it so don’t deny . You know very well that free choice means people choosing things differently because they have many different reasons to choose and give many different weighting to several questions.
    Stopping human driving will never be unanimous so stop saying that it will be a free choice. It will be enforced by Governments with your support.

  • Mr Ecks

    RXC–All the ideas you put forward are either fantasy or entirely negative and destructive in themselves.

    You propose a paradise for bureaucratic scum and a version of Hell for the rest of us.

    That is what “planned” Utopian nonsense always leads to.

  • Mr Ed

    I like the optimism in the OP, but I cannot see it being achieved without a significant shift in the political landscape and a general acceptance of non-interventionism by the State, and a lack of political will to impose regulations on driverless vehicles. I suppose the great imponderable is the transition to a ‘mixed’ system of human-driven and machine-driven vehicles, given the immense number of dickheads out there on the roads.

  • Alisa

    That’s the thing, Ed: I don’t think that a mixed system will be allowed to exist for any significant period. Such a system can only be practically maintained on an extremely decentralized and privately owned basis – and we can’t have that, because reasons. So the self-driving system will be pushed until it takes over, as others have described above, including Rob himself. This is not a good thing – not because there is anything inherently wrong with a self-driving option, but because it eliminates the other option for those who value it.

  • Laird

    I don’t think there is any alternative to a mixed system, more or less permanently. There are a lot of us who drive older cars, and new cars are so expensive (and will be come even more so once fitted with self-driving systems) that it will take decades to get the old ones off the roads. (Obama tried to accelerate their elimination with his “cash for clunkers” program. It was a dismal failure, on this as well as other levels.) And even then it won’t be all of them; you still see the occasional Model A or vintage pickup truck on the road today. And in some parts of the country you have the Amish driving their horse-drawn buggies on the public roads; that won’t change until they all die out (not likely any time soon). At best you might see some roads (interstate highways, perhaps) designated as “autonomous only”, but local roads will always have to be mixed. And the AI systems will have to be designed to accommodate that.

    The day might come when all the old human-driven cars are off the roads, and by that point the AI systems will have evolved sufficiently to get everyone wherever he wants to go. But it will take many decades, or even longer. I certainly won’t live to see it, and I doubt that anyone reading this blog will, either.

  • staghounds

    Here you go, Misfit-


    I know it’s not really autonomous, and probably fake, but it’s cute as can be.

  • staghounds

    1. People have never, with only one limited exception, turned their transportation safety over to a means which doesn’t at least offer the illusion of a sentient pilot who may die in the wreck. And that exception, closed loop airport terminal shuttle trains, is heavy on the illusion of distant but active human control.

    2. When I see Mary Barra, Sergio Marchionne, or Chris Grayling make their morning commutes in a car without a wheel or pedals, I’ll listen to these autonomous car fantasies.

  • Richard Thomas

    I think the idea that private ownership of vehicles will disappear is a bit of an over-reach. There is something to be said for knowing that your transport is not going to smell funny, be contaminated with un-knowable fluids and that if you drop your important item X, you can always go and fish for it.

    The balance will definitely tilt towards renting, particularly in large cities but not as much as people would think. Besides, a car is one of the most affordable ostentatious displays of success.

    Hopefully we can also get rid of the idea that one should have to worry about distance from ones place of work for those of us perfectly capable from working anywhere with some kind of internet connection.

  • Richard Thomas

    TimR did not say that the freedom of driving is a pleasure, but a great freedom. Freedom may be a joy to be treasured without being a pleasure.

    Mr Ed, this leads on to another interesting point. Amongst my daughter and her friends, there seems to be very little desire to obtain this freedom. I had to virtually twist her arm to get a license and now she has it, she seems disinclined to use it.

    I don’t understand it. Personally, I couldn’t wait to be properly mobile to the degree that I may have taken some liberties with licensing and age restrictions. The situation here is not so different to mine while growing up (small town with somewhat limited entertainment options) and most of her friends live a good distance away. The only difference I can really make out is that when I was her age, the internet was the plaything of a very few academics and mobile phones were something you saw on Hart to Hart bolted into a car or in Maxwell Smart’s shoe.

  • Richard Thomas

    Laird, I once read that there was a fair bit of money to be made ferrying the Amish around for various things so it seems they are only really opposed to using the technology if they are directly using it themselves. So presumably they can walk to the telephone that is just off the edge of their land (this is apparently a thing) and call someone to program the thing for them and just have it come and pick them up.

    They can keep the buggies but they will be for use on their private roads only.

  • Derek Buxton

    Oh dear, this thread seems so weird for a libertarian site. I agree with the nay sayers, computers will never cope with the numberless alternatives that a driver does every time he drives. Computers are not infallible and sure, the government would love them but not use them except as a weapon to stop us doing whatever we want. Incidently, where is all the electricity going to come from? We are low on supply now, hence “smart meters”, to cut off your supply if some jobsworth decides you have used enough.

  • staghounds

    Where I once lived, none of our Amish neighbours has a television.

    They did, by some coincidence, always seem to come visit when the good shows were on.

  • Mr Ecks

    Very rare visitors then

  • Richard Thomas

    Many of you are missing a point. Computers are not perfect. However, they don’t need to be. They just need to be better than the bozos who are out on the road currently. That’s a much easier target.

    Many humans already demonstrate on a regular basis that they’d rather be doing something else (texting, reading, eating, putting on makeup) than actually paying attention to the road. The impetus is there.

    The freedom issue is definitely there. The thing is, concerns about that aren’t going to stop anything and self-driving vehicles will punch through such objections like wet tissue paper as soon as a drunk driver puts a bus-load of nuns into an orphanage at 60mph. Best start thinking about how to reconcile the two.

    It should also be pointed out (and it has been a couple of times) that self-driving vehicles will bring vastly increased freedom to many people. So it’s not like it’s all downside.

  • bobby b

    Here’s my biggest objection to ceding yet another basic function to central control:

    Andy wants a ride to the TED talk on expanding access to gender-neutral solar panels.

    Bill wants a ride to the gun range.

    Charlie wants to go to a Trump rally.

    It’s a busy night, and there’s only one vehicle available.

    I’ll bet I can predict, with near 100% certainty, who will get a ride.

    If SJWs loved taking down Twitter, imagine the effort they’ll put into Transport Control.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Still confused about central control. If the companies providing rental vehicles aren’t doing a good job then private ownership is still an option. I only said it would be vastly cheaper to rent.

    Derek Buxton, I’m not worried about electricity. Solar looks promising. The global warming thing is bound to die at some point. New power stations will be built in the next 30 years. And automated cars don’t have to run on batteries, it’s just that they make battery
    swaps and charging are easy to take care of.

  • TomO

    It’s not self driving cars

    It’s software

    Just think about that – millions of lines of code – in separate systems festooning the vehicle.

    Convoys … mebbe
    Sloow urban mobility … ditto

    I’m a tech guy – but – unfettered / self driving / autonomous cars for all, anywhere?

  • bobby b

    “Still confused about central control . . .”

    My Inner Cynic tells me that it has to gravitate towards some form of central control system to handle traffic, flow, and the like.

    I foresee a system where individual vehicles still handle close-form operations – not hitting the pedestrian, staying within the lane, etc. – but in which huge masses of vehicles navigating rush hour are subject to an overarching control that would allow a higher density road use. Almost an Air Traffic Control system which would bump up capacity.

    If government has a place, such a system would be within it. As soon as we enter in to such a system, we cede control to . . . someone. And, historically, someone figures out how to bend such systems to their own purposes.

    But then, I’m overly paranoid. I actually thought several years ago that even Google could become partisan-driven. Ha.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The enjoyment of driving is one of those things that a lot of people don’t feel if they have to drive in big, congested streets, but it is real, nonetheless, on the open road. It is a bit of a freedom that I enjoy.

    So that’s going then.

  • Helen C

    A lot of the upcoming generation are going to see automated cars as the natural way of things, in the same way that I have never used a horse for transportation. At the same time, it is not uncommon to see horses in use even in the downtown area of the small community I live in because they are a useful tool and a pleasure for many people. Automated cars and human-driven cars are going to have to learn to co-exist.
    As tools, human-driven vehicles will be on the road for a very long time. If for no other reason, as others pointed out, we cannot live without the trucking, construction, and other work industries. It is going to take a lot more than some automation to replace those big engines and the requisite skill. On the ground decision making by a person will always be better than that of a computer.
    As to the pleasure aspect of it, someone mentioned efforts to raise the cost of insurance to the point of making it cost-prohibitive to keep a car or motorcycle for pleasure purposes. Texas currently has an insurance law allowing a motorcycle rider to pay an additional, extremely high, amount that permits riding without a helmet. I don’t know any numbers on how many actually pay it, but I know that almost every rider I see has no helmet on, so in theory most are paying for the privilege of feeling the wind in their hair. People will always find a way to prioritize what is important to them financially.
    One last point to make is something surprisingly few of you have touched on – the ever-present link to your choices and location. Has everyone completely given themselves over to the inevitability of Onstar? Is it still possible to own a vehicle that does not constantly transmit your geolocation? These will make it even worse. At least now you can leave your car at home. Or just not buy a new one at all. With proper care and maintenance, your old car will still be running like new thirty years from now, no one will be tracking it, and your classic will be worth a fortune.

  • On the ground decision making by a person will always be better than that of a computer.

    That is extremely debatable and very situational. The majority of accidents are caused by driver error not mechanical failure.

    Texas currently has an insurance law allowing a motorcycle rider to pay an additional, extremely high, amount that permits riding without a helmet

    Interesting. However whilst one can make a good argument for drivers having third party insurance, why is a state telling people what personal insurance they need?

  • Helen C

    It has to do with your medical insurance guaranteeing coverage when you are a vegetable the rest of your life because your head met pavement with no protection that the state requires but understands no one likes. I am not sure exactly how it works because I personally choose to wear a helmet but you have to buy the additional medical.

  • Laird

    @ Richard Thomas: “They [computers] just need to be better than the bozos who are out on the road currently.”

    I disagree. People will accept errors from other humans; we’re used to them. (“Accidents happen.”) But we won’t accept errors from machines. Accidents caused by autonomous vehicles will have to be vanishingly rare, in the “man-bites-dog” category, before such vehicles will be accepted without suspicion and resentment.

    FWIW, South Carolina permits helmetless motorcycle riding, and makes no distinction with regard to mandatory insurance. (But we do mandate the wearing of seat belts in automobiles. Go figure.) Whether the private insurers differentiate in their pricing, I don’t know. But every biker I know who has survived an accident now wears a helmet.