Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Solving the problem of cars: drivers

On a Freakonomics episode from last month they answered listener questions and one asked about driving "like an economist" and cited the difficulty of driving to affect others so they drive better. The questioner mentioned being in a traffic jam and trying to do his part by leaving space between his car and the one in front (to allow for easier merging) but all it resulted in was other drivers cutting in front while others tailgated him. No other motorists were interested in contributing to alleviating their mutual plight.

The answer was that, yes, the inconsiderate or thoughtless drivers made it so there was little an individual could do to influence the situation, as it merely resulted in those others taking advantage. Ultimately the solution would be driverless cars, taking the human ego out of the equation. Would people be willing to give up driving to be able to do other things with that time? They thought people would, but those automated vehicles would need to be dramatically safer in order to capture public approval. Levitt speculated that even if the fatalities from accidents with the driverless cars was a fraction of auto fatalities we have with humans driving that still would be too much. Only if these cars were essentially perfectly safe would people consider them to be worth giving up control.

I think the challenge would be getting the kinks worked out of the technology that would be necessary to facilitate such a thing. In a world where there were a mixture of vehicles with drivers and vehicles with a computer in control, the former would take advantage of and be the primary danger to the latter. Once all the cars were switched over I imagine people would have had time to acclimate to not driving, and the advantages of not being aggravated by the idiots on the road and the better flow of traffic would more than make up for not being the one steering. Also, for some I suspect the biggest draw of such technology: No more designated drivers; everyone at the party could consume to their fill knowing none of them had to sober up enough to get behind the wheel later.

When inevitably there were malfunctions it would be frustrating, but would that be any worse than when one's car breaks down now? I'd argue it's the same—or perhaps a little better, in that at least whatever caused it likely wasn't the owner's specific fault, as he/she wasn't the one who was driving. There'd be something else to blame.

It would not eliminate all problems with vehicles, and getting to the point where it was viable would be a challenging time for all of us. However, within a generation or two of reaching there we'd have children who grow up not missing being able to drive. The reality is humanity got by without being able to drive motor vehicles for millennia; we could get out of the habit with relative ease.

Conceivably law enforcement would have some manual override and there'd be a black market for cars that are "off the grid" (for criminal use), but the way the world is already going the "Big Brother" objection would not be as overwhelming as one might think. We happily (if blithely) live with being locatable at all times because we like the advantages our smart phones allow. Being able to read or watch TV or tweet or sleep while in the car without those activities interfering with the operation of the vehicle (and thus making the car a danger to the occupants and to others).

One could argue that we aren't smart enough as a species to achieve what is necessary for such a situation, and perhaps we aren't. I like to believe the brightest of us are more powerful than the stupidest of us, even though I fully concede the latter is the larger group.

Heck, it's that belief which gets me through those moments when those asshats are making traffic come to a standstill. If technology cannot help protect me from the idiots of the world, what good is it?

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So, what do you think?