Autonomous Vehicles Don’t Need To Be Mandatory

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Before I start making my case here, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: autonomous vehicle tech isn’t ready. CleanTechnica articles about the future of autonomous vehicles are only about the future. Everything today is either a driver assist feature or they’re autonomous vehicle systems in testing (and in testing, they require human supervision). Don’t do anything stupid with today’s non-autonomous vehicle systems, like leave the driver’s seat, sleep, or get distracted.

That having been said, things like the FSD beta look promising, and while they weren’t ready for us to use as quickly as Elon Musk had hoped, they look like they’ll get there at some point. On top of that, ADAS systems like Autopilot and other, more passive systems like automatic emergency braking, have made manual driving safer.

Given the safety benefits that we would see with future autonomous vehicles, I’ve seen many people advocate for making AVs mandatory. They want to see manually-driven cars get banned by the government, and only see AVs on the streets. If you disagree, you’re not thinking about safety. After all, we need to think of the children! (more informative link here)

Not All Drivers Are The Same

I’ll start this with a story, one where we compare two drivers.

The first driver is awful. I encountered her in my hometown once. We were at a busy intersection where a small street met the frontage road of a highway. If you step on the accelerator hard, you can cross the frontage road and get onto the onramp, but there are always other people who are coming up the frontage road. In other words, you’ve got to wait for a gap and then jump in to make it.

As people ahead of us went, I noticed that there was damage all over her vehicle. The rear bumper had been hit numerous times. The sides of the car had been hit repeatedly. In the reflection of the vehicle in front of it, I saw that the front bumper was also beat to hell. Looking inside the car, I saw that the woman was literally terrified. In her rear view, I could see it in her eyes. She was gripping her steering wheel like she’d fall down a 2000-foot cliff if she let go.

The vehicle was a recent model, and couldn’t have been more than 2-3 years old.

When her turn to go came, she glanced in the direction of the traffic and then pulled right in front of a semi-truck. The truck’s driver laid into the brakes, releasing a cloud of smoke and that awful screeching sound as tires scrubbed pavement. The lady narrowly missed getting T-boned by the truck, only to pull in front of another vehicle on the other side of the truck, which drove onto the shoulder and into the dirt to avoid hitting her. She got onto the freeway, but only after almost dying.

I knew where all the damage on her almost-new car had come from.

Let’s look at second driver. When she was 18, she got into one minor collision that was her fault at an odd intersection. Fortunately, the man she rear-ended had a load of illegal drugs, and didn’t want to call the police, even paying her on the spot to fix her bumper. Since then, she has been in zero accidents that were her fault, and only one that wasn’t. That last not-at-fault accident was ten years ago, and the one that was her fault was 18 years ago. Collisions aside, her last ticket for any moving violation was 17 years ago.

Plus, she’s driven a LOT, including commuting between cities and driving for Uber for about a year. Total miles comes out to almost 500,000 in the 20 or so years she’s been driving.

That’s a night-and-day difference.

What if there was a way we could remove almost all of the drivers that drive like the first woman from the road, and only leave people who drive like the second woman? Obviously, the road wouldn’t be 100% perfectly safe, but it would be significantly safer, right?

Bad Drivers Won’t Drive If They Don’t Have To

If you think about it, the first woman hates driving. It’s something she’s not very good at for whatever reason (maybe a disability, or a mental illness), and she’s constantly bearing the cost of high insurance, collision repair (which she has apparently given up on), and the inconvenience of not getting to places on time when she gets in yet another accident.

If she had the option of buying an autonomous vehicle or calling for an inexpensive robotaxi on her phone, that’s going to be what she wants to go for. Given the high rates she’s likely paying for insurance, hanging up the keys is a really good financial deal for her. Her children are safer, she’s safer, her monthly transportation bill goes down by a lot, and she’s no longer having to be terrified every day when she’s going places.

The government doesn’t have to tell her she must switch to using autonomous vehicles. She’ll gladly do it all by herself.

But What About The Rare Accident With Drivers Like The Second Woman?

Sure, the second woman is a much better driver. The only blemishes to her driving record were when she was young and didn’t have as much experience, so her accident rate is probably less than one per 1,000,000 miles. But she’s still not perfect, and future autonomous vehicles will likely outperform her on safety, so there’s still a public safety benefit from making her switch along with the first woman, right?

What we haven’t factored in was that there are technologies on the road today that would have prevented that accident when she was 18. Automatic emergency braking would have kept even the younger her from hitting the drug dealer at the weird intersection. Years later, when the old lady literally ran her off the road, vehicle stability systems (which have gotten a lot better) would have kept her from spinning out on the gravel. Plus, the old lady (assuming she wasn’t in an AV) would have had collision avoidance and a blind spot warning keep her from running the second woman off the road in the first place.

With ADAS, which comes standard on an increasing number of cars, we take the really good driving record of the second woman and make it spotless.

On top of that, the second woman can voluntarily use a robotaxi service or an autonomous mode on her own vehicle when she’s tired, sick, or had a few drinks. That takes her now corrected-to-perfect record and makes it far less likely that she’d get in a collision.

In other words, instead of using brute government force and making everyone use fully-autonomous vehicles, we can let poor drivers self-select using autonomous vehicles all the time, and let a mixture of ADAS and voluntary autonomy use correct decent drivers’ records to perfection.

But What About The Baddies?

The only people left are those who willfully do bad things with cars, like race on public roads or use vehicles as weapons. They’re criminals, and would likely just hack their vehicles for manual control regardless of what the law requires. This rare intentionally-bad driver is not the standard by which we should create laws that apply to everyone else who uses vehicles responsibly. What they do is already illegal, so continued enforcement of those laws against the bad guys will be the way to address that.

Featured image by Tesla.



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