News of self-driving cars never fails to pique our interest at Via Meadia. While Google is hard at work developing the technology that would make us happy perpetual passengers, others are spoiling the party. Writing for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle identifies liability as a major logistical challenge:
[E]ven if the overall number of accidents drops [as a result of self-driving cars], the number of accidents where the automaker is perceived to be at fault will approach 100 percent. After all, they’re the ones who designed or installed the software that made the decision. And while in theory, a jury should be able to say, “Well, this was a hard design problem, you can’t make everyone happy, and this is an unfortunate tragedy,” in practice, this is unlikely. If the machine built by a corporation made a decision that killed or seriously injured a person, the jury is going to give the person money at the expense of the corporation.These issues make me very worried for the future of driverless cars. Understand that I’d love to be wrong — I, too, want a car that will let me nap while it does the hard work. But I think this is a big hurdle for the nascent industry to jump. They may “jump” it by specifying that drivers are expected to be alert and at the wheel at all times. That would still be good from a safety standpoint — auto fatalities would fall a lot. But it would be far from The Dream.
McArdle’s solution would be to scrap America’s liability system in favor of a mandatory no-fault accident insurance program. That looks like political poison. But what else is there? What company would sell you a car if it were liable for every mile driven?Maybe we ought to temper our expectations. In an interview with the Financial Times, Elon Musk described how he envisions his electric car company, Tesla, reaching into the driverless industry: “We should be able to do 90 per cent of miles driven within three years…My opinion is it’s a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars. It’s incredibly hard to get the last few per cent.”To Musk, this kind of driverless-lite technology seems more imminently achievable. Luxury car companies are already working on more advanced forms of cruise control and automating parallel parking. Tesla will be iterating on these ideas, rather than reinventing them. That kind of linear progress might not be “The Dream” as imagined by McArdle and sci-fi novelists, but we’ll take it.[Elon Musk image courtesy of Brian Solis]