Four reasons to take the driver out of the car

At TEDx Brussels recently, Paul Rojas made a presentation (you can see it here) about  a car driven by a computer.

The project has been very successful; from a technology point of view, a human driver is, today, no longer necessary.

That got me thinking – would it be a good idea to abolish human drivers?

After thinking about it, here’s four reasons why I think we should, and two reasons why it may take a lot longer than it could. Most of my calculations are “back of envelope” quality, but they give a pretty good idea of the potential.

First: it would really help to save the planet.

As you can see from the film, automatic cars would probably mean that the average person would no longer own a car, but just order a robot taxi whenever needed, be driven to their destination as and when they want it, and then see the car move on to another drive. I would also assume all those cars would be electric.

Most people I know use their car less than 20% of the day (that means that they drive less than 5 hours per day, seven days a week).

Sharing automatic cars would enable the cars to be used at least 60% of the time (taking into account night time with less traffic and charging time). That would mean we could cut the number of cars necessary to do the same amount of transport as we use today by more than 40%, maybe even more than 50%.

Most of the CO2 exhaust is still caused by the production of a car, rather than its use. So, this would already have a major impact on CO2 reduction. If all those cars become electric (for robot taxis, charging is much easier, they would do it in their free time at central locations), the CO2 exhaust would, again, drop massively. My guess is it would make a real difference.

Second: no more traffic jams.

It goes without saying that when you have the computing power to drive a car safely in the challenging environment of today’s inner city traffic, then you would enable that car to have access to traffic information in real-time, and compute the fastest way to your destination based on that real-time information about traffic density, road works, etc.

In other words, you would always get there in the fastest way possible.

But there is another advantage of robot taxis. Their driving patterns would be much more efficient. It is a well-known fact that traffic jams (e.g. on motorways) occur much earlier than they should because of human errors (braking slightly because the person ahead of you moves lane, etc.).

All those factors of human error would disappear out of traffic. Robot taxis would be able to have much more cars on the same road before it would become an actual traffic jam.

Combine that with the reduction of the number of cars on the road, because of higher utilization rates, and its clear that traffic jams would, by and large, become a thing of the past.

The economic benefit would be huge.

Third: You can finally drink and drive again. Or work and drive. Or…

Driving a car in everyday traffic is actually a rather useless activity. It doesn’t do more than getting you from A to B. But imagine that you can use the time in the car to make telephone calls without having to watch traffic? To catch up on your email, or to prepare for that meeting you’re going to?

The potential increase in productivity would be very significant.

When you start to use your imagination, you could really do anything in a car that you also do in your living room…

Also, since we have our robot taxi to drive us home after that party, no more reason to stay away from that drink. Not that I’m encouraging people to get drunk, but imagine no more risk of accidents caused by drunk drivers (apparently, 1 out of 4 accidents are caused by drinking & driving).

Fourth: safety.

Which brings me to my main, fourth argument. The “Killer App”, so to speak.

We would no longer have traffic accidents or victims. Imagine that a simple traffic accident would become so rare, that it would immediate make the headlines. The crash wouldn’t even need to have someone dying in it (I know how cynical that sounds), a simple injury would immediately be big news.

Imagine that.

If cars as we know them now would be invented today, they would immediately be banned on grounds of health and safety. And rightly so. In Belgium alone, a country of a mere 11 million people, we have almost a thousand people dead every year, several thousands of heavily injured, and a lot more lightly injured.

That’s a lot of people’s lives to be saved. In the EU alone, more than 35.000 people die on the roads every year. You can find the statistics here.

Imagine we could actually stop that completely. Imagine all the human suffering we would save ourselves. Imagine all those hundreds of thousands of families, friends and lovers who no longer have to hear that terrible news “I’m afraid he/she has been in an accident, and it doesn’t look good”.

Imagine the savings in loss of experience and human potential. Imagine the savings in health care.

Imagine no longer being afraid to send your five-year old on a bike into the street.

I think Paul Rojas’ film shows us it is perfectly possible.

Why has it not happened already?

Now, this news is not really “new”. These developments in technology have been going on for a while.

Why has society not jumped on these possibilities? Why do we not see politicians stating that human driving should be banned, after a transition period of some years? Why are we not taxing human-driven cars out of existence? Why is Jeremy Clarkson not foaming at the mouth (well I guess he is, because he always is, but so far for other reasons).

I see two powerful reasons why we accept all those tens of thousands of deaths and injured every year.

The first is purely emotional, and as we all know, emotional arguments tend to be very strong, often much stronger than rational arguments. I see two strong emotions.

First, we love our cars. We love that it is OUR car, and we identify with our cars.

We really dislike abandoning that love, that attachment, the idea that we are safe in OUR cocoon when whizzing around in a dangerous, unknown environment. And that doesn’t even address the deeply emotional approach to car brands.

Second, we distrust robots. I haven’t seen any survey on this, but I’m pretty sure that if you asked people whether they would accept robot cars if they reduced dead and injury caused by car crashes by 80%, they would probably refuse. Rationally, that doesn’t make any sense, but I’m pretty convinced we would never accept a robot killing a person in a traffic accident, whereas we are perfectly willing to accept lots of humans being killed by other humans’ ineptness to drive, or even mere distraction, in today’s traffic accident (“because that just happens”). Our emotional tolerance to machines killing us, even when they would kill enormously less than humans in the same situation, is very, very low.

So my guess is society will demand actual proof that these robot taxis are completely, 100% safe, before we would consider allowing them, let alone encouraging or imposing them.

The second reason is economic and political.

Again, back of envelope, here’s a short list of industries who would be deeply affected by such a change, and who would all see more or less lay-offs:

-       the car insurance industry (would disappear almost completely)

-       the legal profession (all traffic accident related litigation)

-       the taxi industry

-       public transport

-       the car manufacturing industry (still at the heart of our industrial production system) – remember that 50% drop in production?

-       car travel assistance

-       the health care system (yes, I know, cynical, but probably true).

And I’m sure I’m missing some.

That’s an awful lot of creative destruction, and an immense amount of lobbying and political firepower to try and stop it, or slow it down as much as possible.

So my guess is we will probably, and unfortunately, in the name of “safety” (i.e. the carnage taking place on our roads every day) and “jobs” (causing & cleaning up that carnage) introduce this life-saving technology much later than we could.

There’s no real link with Intellectual Property here, although I wonder if Hertz, Avis and their ilk should not use this new technology to really develop their business. If I was their head of strategy, I would know what to do. Maybe even develop some innovation & occupy the market space.

I hope I’m wrong, and that we’ll see this a lot sooner than I think we will.