People in Arizona have been lashing out violently at self-driving cars, and Waymo is bearing the brunt of the hate. Residents of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, are slashing their tires, throwing rocks, running them off the road, and even threatening the human backup drivers with both real and fake weapons. While some perpetrators are never identified, police have questioned others and learned of their motivations. While some have expressed fears that the vehicles are unsafe, most tell reporters and police that they fear self-driving cars will replace humans, depriving us all of jobs and the freedom to drive.
On the surface, the case for autonomous vehicles replacing humans seems pretty obvious and clear cut, but things are not always what they seem.
Byron Reese at SingularityHub points out that fears over new technologies are nothing new, and technology doesn’t have a track record of destroying jobs. ATMs didn’t kill off bank tellers; today, there are more tellers than ever. Computer translation programs have actually raised demand for human translators. Reese gives a number of other examples that are worth reading, but the common thread is this: the cost of doing business drops with new technology, leading to more business, more work, and in the end, more jobs.
The developers and promoters of self-driving vehicles like to point out the benefits, which alone could lead to more jobs and not less. Less congestion, fewer accidents, and lower stress all could lower both the time and money costs of driving, and that is very unlikely to kill jobs in the long term.
Driving jobs, however, are not the only concern raised. What about the freedom of people to drive manually? Will it eventually be considered unsafe and be banned by government? Or will manual driving insurance become too expensive for most to afford?
There’s no way to know with 100% certainty what the future holds, but the end of manual human driving is not a foregone conclusion. While not common, there are still many people in rural areas who ride horses, mostly for sport or recreation. However, other than for freeways, there are very few laws restricting horses from roads, even 100 years after motorized transport started to replace horses for most users.
Not unlike Reese’s bank teller example, self-driving vehicles may even increase the number of manually-driven vehicles on the road. One way this could happen is that driving will get easier, cheaper and less stressful. Auto accidents are not uniformly distributed among the population. Teen drivers, the elderly, and people in certain cities tend to have more accidents than the rest of us. Even within age groups and other demographics, some drivers are just not as safe as the rest of us. Many of these bad drivers hate driving, and would thus self-select self-driving.
Even removing a small percentage of the worst drivers from behind the wheel can have big impacts of the rest of us. With less error and accidents, driving will be easier and less stressful. Insurance rates will fall for everybody, especially in cities that currently have high insurance rates.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that self-driving cars are not an all-or-nothing proposition. Many vehicles come with driver assistance functions that help manual drivers without taking control from them. Lane departure warnings, braking warnings, anti-lock brakes, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, drowsiness detection, and many other features can increase safety. Also, part-time self-driving can help us all avoid driving when we aren’t safe drivers, such as when we are too tired, distracted or intoxicated to drive ourselves. The ease of turning such systems on and off can remove a lot of today’s temptation to drive when we shouldn’t while still enabling us to get there.
With some drivers opting to give control away full time, others opting to give computers part-time control and others only opting for assistance/warning features, the road will be a much safer place, possibly negating any need to ban manually driven vehicles at all. We may see fewer manual driving cars, more, or the number may stay the same. Either way, the number seems very unlikely to ever reach zero… at least in our lifetimes.
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