Some Hard Truths About Autonomous Driving

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Like others here at CleanTechnica, I spend plenty of time on social media among Tesla fans and the wider EV community. While we certainly aren’t a monolithic group that agrees on everything, there are some things I hear a lot. I know it’s a vast oversimplification (and I’m jamming together several things here), but we can sum the mythology up in a couple of sentences:

“The future of transportation is inevitably one of electric-powered fully-autonomous vehicles that you don’t own. This will all be mandated by the government, because it’s the only thing that can prevent thousands of pointless deaths every year.”

Am I raising a strawman to burn here? Yes, but it’s not as fake as it appears at first glance. It’s made up of several myths that are common in the EV/Tesla community, and I’m going to take a realistic look at each one.

I’m not doing this to be a contrarian, to be mean, or to attack anybody. I just feel like a dose of skepticism is something we all need now and then to stay grounded. Without realism, we risk ignoring things we can’t afford to ignore as we work toward a better future.

Myth 1: The superior safety of autonomous vehicles (AV) will lead to government mandates.

This one is probably the easiest to dismantle, but it’s based on a myth that runs deep in our wider civilization. Many people think government restrictions are usually based on real proof that the restriction will make society safer and save lives, that force is often required to make this happen, and that sufficient proof that a policy would save lives will lead to the needed restrictions.

I’m not saying that government mandates never make us safer, nor am I arguing that there aren’t circumstances where force is needed to protect people from each other. That would be an exaggerated caricature of what I’m actually saying, at least here anyway.

I’m only arguing that these things aren’t always true, and are anything but inevitable.

I don’t have to discuss the gun control debate, climate policy, fossil fuel subsidies, or any other non-automotive topic to illustrate this. Those may be great rhetorical devices to prove that government often does not act in the public interest, but it’s even more effective to discuss a “crime” that nearly all of us commit frequently: speeding.

It would be extremely easy for government to largely stop speeding to five nines (99.999%). First, require that all new cars come with speed limiters (governors) that are set for the speed limit by GPS. Second, put traffic enforcement officers in highly visible locations where speeding happens to make sure everybody knows they’ll get pulled over for speeding. Third, enact severe punishments for speeding. After a few years, most vehicles capable of speeding would end up in the junkyard, people would always be afraid to speed because there are police everywhere, and the severe punishments would scare most people into setting cruise at 1 MPH below the limit, just to be sure.

I shouldn’t have to explain why the above is problematic. Most readers would be against the speed limiters for a variety of reasons, and severe punishments for something almost all of us do every day without harming anybody seems wildly draconian. You’re simply not going to get enough public support for this, even among environmentalists. We all want safety, but we also want government to be reasonable.

Perhaps most importantly, government is probably never going to do any of this because preventing speeding isn’t even their goal. Putting police in places that would stop people from speeding in the first place means no revenue from traffic tickets. Instead, highways are designed with the “official use only crossovers” (read: speed trap infrastructure) just after the tops of hills and just around blind corners.

Tax increases, annual fees, and other policies that get money from the public at large inspire opposition. Nobody wants to give up more of their hard-earned money. But create a class of “dangerous criminals” to pickpocket, and the opposition melts. You don’t want to be one of those people, and you don’t want to be seen standing up for those people. Think of the children!

But the fact of the matter is that habitual speeding is likely to lead to habitual tickets, which leads to racked up points and then the suspension or loss of your license. The real “those people” aren’t on the road long enough to be the group that pays more than a small fraction of the speeding fines. It comes from everyone who get just the occasional ticket. You and me, we are those people.

In other words, we are all getting taxed, but the Tea Party doesn’t circulate petitions or recall our elected officials because we believe that someone else, those people, are the target, and deserve it. This may be something you can change, but first you’ll have to convince politicians to stop liking other people’s money and convince Helen Lovejoy that speeding 7 MPH over the limit doesn’t kill babies. Good luck with that.

This might surprise many readers, but speed limits and other traffic laws don’t necessarily even increase traffic safety when visibly and transparently enforced. They increase revenues and/or create security theater to misdirect the uninformed. When Montana instituted speed limits almost 20 years ago, the death rate on the interstate highways doubled. Red light cameras are now a well-known scam and a magnet for corruption. Some cities in Europe are even finding that removing signs and signals altogether tends to improve safety. We’ve all been indoctrinated for so long that these things seem like they couldn’t possibly be true, but the data and the science don’t fit our assumptions.

Elon Musk doesn’t want human driving banned, either.

The bottom line is this: you aren’t going to get government to implement a legal mandate requiring self-driving cars. You’re certainly not going to get anywhere once they figure out that autonomous vehicles would get fewer citations. If you want to get more AVs on the road, you’re going to need to find some other way.

Elon Musk already knows that it’s best to not wait on government to get things done. When he wanted to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, he didn’t work with California legislators to mandate them and then produce “compliance cars” to barely fit the law like other manufacturers did. Instead, Tesla’s team worked to make electric vehicles desirable and fun. That’s the same approach that might work for autonomous driving as well. If AV technology is convenient and even profitable, you don’t have to twist arms to get people to adopt it.

If anything, arm twisting and sending in the men with guns is counterproductive. The harder such an effort tightens its grip, the more people slip through its fingers and into opposition.

Myth 1, Part 2: Autonomous Driving Mandates Will Face Organized Opposition

Just as there is opposition to electric vehicles, there is opposition to autonomous vehicles. Sometimes even violent opposition. While the most wacky of those opposed to them resort to violence or threatening behavior, or just make asses of themselves on Twitter, there are many more who are intelligent, peaceful people who reasonably articulate their valid concerns.

If we don’t address these concerns and find a way to work together with the reasonable opponents, it’s going to be hard going. Keep in mind that not only are mandates nearly impossible, but we don’t even yet have regulatory approval to run AVs at all in most places. We need all the support we can gather just to get to that point.

The Human Driving Association (HDA)

One organization we can’t afford to ignore is the Human Driving Association. Though only started last year, it already has thousands of people in its mailing list, many followers on social media, and the numbers continue to grow. Unlike many of the wacky anti-Tesla people on Twitter, they’re not making false claims about the safety of Autopilot or doing anything else intellectually dishonest to justify their position.

The organization’s founder, Alex Roy, isn’t a Tesla hater at all. He’s best known for his cross-country trips from New York to Los Angeles, and held the Cannonball Run record time for years, but is also the owner of a Tesla Model 3 and holds the NY–LA record time in an electric vehicle. While he doesn’t fawn all over Tesla in his articles for The Drive and on social media (yes, we are often guilty of that here at CleanTechnica), his criticisms are reasonable and he takes a very balanced and truthful approach to Tesla.

A screenshot of HDA’s website.

In sum, Tesla and its fans would be fools to approach the Human Driving Association the same way they approach the wacky TSLAQ critics. Jedi-style handwaving, “Ackchyually…”, and sending links refuting obvious wrongs aren’t going to fly here, because HDA isn’t run by wacky critics and/or weak-minded fools standing on shaky factual ground.

HDA will probably not be the only organization taking this on, but at this point it’s the biggest I could find. We’d be wise to understand the members’ goals, their reasoning, and the ways in which we might work cooperatively if we are going to support autonomous vehicles. Even if somebody bigger and more influential comes along later, at least we got our mindset right and would know what we are doing when we encounter future opposition.

I’ll start by directing readers to HDA’s “manifesto” (a more detailed version can be found here).

The first thing you should notice is that the page doesn’t go on an insane, ignorant screed against Tesla, Autopilot, or autonomous vehicles. It even lends support for the technology, within a framework that respects the owner’s right to choose whether to drive or let the car drive. It even advocates for additional training for drivers, and doesn’t see driving as something that should go entirely uncontrolled. The goal is only to make sure those in possession of a car have control of the experience.

It’s worth noting at this point that while driving is not a right on the level of, say, freedom of speech or the right to keep and bear arms, driving does connect with other rights we have that do endow it with some aspects of a right. For example, we have a right to “due process,” which means the government can’t treat people arbitrarily when making decisions. If you qualify for a license, the local DMV kommissar can’t deny you a license because he doesn’t approve of your skin color, who you date, or what your favorite sports team is. The same criteria for issuing, suspending, and revoking licenses applies to everybody, and everybody can get a fair hearing to challenge decisions made.

While HDA advocates for elevating this right to a higher level, it also stands for increasing training, retesting, and using technology to increase safety. It has staked out a very middle-of-the-road position that values safety and allows for autonomous vehicles to develop.

If you dig around a bit, you can even find Roy’s vision for developing AV not as a quick jump to full self driving but as an increasing amount of driver protection systems that can eventually culminate in full autonomy. On an older piece for Jalopnik, he even advocates for speeding up the transition to AV so that today’s car enthusiasts can have a voice in how it is shaped, rather than waiting for it to happen after we are all dead and nobody remembers the peak of human driving.

After looking at all of this, it shouldn’t take much imagination to see where AVs and human driving advocates like the HDA could find common ground — unless you’re completely convinced that all human driving must be banned, that is. As I said earlier — good luck with that!

The Wider Motorists’ Rights Movement

When looking at the opposition to AV, it’s also important to look at the wider context of it: the motorists’ rights movement.

A good example is the National Motorists Association. This organization’s About Us page has a lot in common with the HDA manifesto, but with far less focus on the impact of autonomous driving (but it is mentioned). You’ll find no opposition to safety improvements, but you will find a defense of the rights that continue to apply to us while driving, and opposition to policies that do something other than improve safety and improve the roads we drive on. Our right to freedom of movement, transparent enforcement that focuses on real safety issues, privacy, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process are all issues NMA focuses on.

Take a good look and poke around the website. Even if you disagree with everything you see and think we should all be using public transit, it pays to understand those you disagree with.

Progressive’s Snapshot OBD II device. Photo provided by Progressive Newsroom.

The Issue of Insurance

Another thing worth considering when looking at opposition to AV mandates is the role of insurance in the debate. While insurance companies aren’t the government, drivers are required by law to purchase their services (with rare and expensive exceptions). The way they conduct business is also heavily regulated, so how insurance fits into the human driving vs. AV debate is something that can be readily changed by how government officials act and legislate.

In 1996, the US federal government required all new passenger vehicles to have an OBD II port available for diagnostics of emissions equipment. In many states with emissions testing, they simply plug into the port to make sure all emissions equipment is functioning, which is far cheaper and more convenient than analyzing tailpipe emissions on a dyno. The ports have also been great for mechanics and hobbyists to get a wide variety of information from the vehicle for repairs, tuning, and other data. Now, even smartphones can connect to the ports with a Bluetooth adapter to get at the data.

It wasn’t long, just two years later in 1998, that insurers started trying to get customers to give access to the data. They’d give you a small device that records the data to determine whether they think you’re a safe driver, and if they thought you were safe, you’d get a discount. For years, the insurers swore they’d never penalize customers based on the data from their OBD ports, but they later changed their minds.

Now there are even insurers who require tracking of some kind, and will refuse to accept customers who don’t allow their movements to be tracked. One insurer, Root, won’t even take you on as a customer at all if it doesn’t like your driving. If enough insurers follow suit, it could become impossible for people to opt out of tracking.

Not content with even that data, insurers are considering collecting up any data they can on their customers. They’re using CARFAX and your local auto or tire shop to spy on your mileage. They’re even considering using AI to analyze the appearance of your residence and compare it to others to determine whether you’re a bigger risk. Insurers don’t seem to have any ethical limits when it comes to gathering data about you.

I’m sure that the insurers would urinate in their pants and jack my rates up significantly if they had all of the data they want from me, but the fact still remains that I haven’t had a moving violation since 2004 and there are zero at-fault collisions on my record. You’re not going to convince me that it isn’t just an excuse to get their hands into my purse a little deeper.

With this history of voyeurism and lies from insurers, it shouldn’t surprise people that insurers are trying to worm their way into the world of autonomous driving. Insurers are now offering discounts to Tesla owners who use Autopilot. While they aren’t requiring its use or penalizing Tesla owners for not using it enough, history would seem to indicate that this is eventually going to happen.

Even worse, many Tesla owners have had difficulty getting reasonably priced auto insurance in the past. To help with this, Tesla will be offering auto insurance directly to owners, but with a catch: your car will give Tesla’s insurers access to your driving data, and that data will be used to increase or decrease your rates. If Autopilot is found to be safer by the underwriting insurance companies, you can bet they’ll give lower rates to those using Autopilot more.

It’s not an unreasonable fear, given past history, that insurers might eventually price human driving out of the market except for the wealthy. If that happens, it will be because government regulators allowed it to happen and required us to go along with it.

Still, about 42% of drivers don’t think the loss of privacy is worth letting their insurer into their car to spy on them, despite promised discounts. If enough customers refuse, insurers will not be able to push their will on the public … yet. With enough opposition, insurers could be regulated to continue to allow affordable human driving, and you can bet there will be a push for that regulation.

Myth 2: In the future, all vehicles will be electric

Mazda’s Skyactiv-X compression ignition system for gasoline significantly increases efficiency. Graphic by Mazda.

I’m going to spend less time on this, as the truth is fairly obvious. We’ve seen a lot of headlines about how this government or that is planning to ban internal combustion vehicles by a certain year, but you have to read the fine print. Even the most aggressive proposals only ban the sales of new ICE cars, relying on attrition to eventually get rid of most gas or diesel-powered vehicles. Hobbyists, niche users, and others will likely keep the ICE cars up and running for a long, long time. They’re never going to completely go away.

It’s also foolish to count the big ICE (internal combustion engine) manufacturers’ research and development projects out. ICE efficiency and performance will continue for at least decades. There are still research projects developing a wide variety of different new engine types, including improvements to the Wankel rotary, a design that has earned a reputation in the past for being too dirty to meet emissions standards. Other improvements to typical piston engines are coming, including compression ignition of gasoline, microwave ignition, and many other technologies that will eventually lead to large improvements in fuel economy and emissions that could come to rival today’s electric cars.

As the dates for proposed ICE bans come closer, exceptions and delays are likely, especially if these new combustion technologies can prove themselves between now and then. If they can, and ICE cleans up its act, it could be a good thing for everybody and reduce the security issues that may emerge in monoculture.

Myth 3: The end of car ownership

This one is even easier to dispute. Even in the unlikely event that all cars go electric and human driving ends, ownership certainly would not. I’ll prove this point with one question: would you be willing to share a living room with your neighbors?

I’m sure most wouldn’t be willing. We don’t want strangers on our couches. We don’t want to share a toilet with strangers (we already hover or paper the hell out of the seat in public restrooms). We want our living room to be available for our use 24/7. We only use our beds 6-10 hours a day, but most would bristle at the thought of Navy-style “hot swapping,” where a stranger gets in your bed when your scheduled time there has ended.

You can bet that people will want to customize driverless cars. They’ll become a part of our houses in some ways. Many will want to have the seats, TV, desk, and other furniture of their choice installed. Some might want to sleep on their way to and back from work, and will want to do so in their own bed. For long trips, having a small version of your house or apartment would be ideal, and allow nearly nonstop driving while you work, eat, sleep, and even use the bathroom on the road.

Some may even choose to live in an autonomous vehicle that was built like an RV. It’s estimated that about 1,000,000 people in the US already live in an RV full time, and this will only become more attractive if the vehicle is cheap to operate and can drive itself. Few people living in an AV full time would be willing to lend out their house or share with others.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, there are two kinds of drivers. Some of us drive to work, while others work to drive.

There are those who consider driving an expensive chore, and would gladly have somebody or something else do it. Many of these same people don’t care what kind of car they drive, and will get whatever they can get for cheap that fits their cargo and passenger space needs. Drivers like this are probably the reason so many cars from so many manufacturers look almost identical to each other. You can literally swap the grilles and badges in Photoshop and it’s tough to immediately see that the car isn’t what it claims to be.

Then there are those who actually like driving. I’m one of those. I’d rather drive across the country than suffer the indignities that accompany air travel today. I go out sometimes and drive just to drive. I look for fun rural roads to check out and drive on them in ways that would make an insurance salesman piss his pants. I don’t just grab whatever car is up for sale and cheap — I actually care what I drive and know the differences in handling, power, transmission, and engine/motor types, and the general feel of the car.

The former group wouldn’t mind if all human driving went away. The latter, like me, isn’t going to stop driving until I’m too sick and old to do it safely. In other words, you might have to pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead hands.

That is the biggest reason why human driving is not going away, at least not any time soon.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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