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The Driverless Car Revolution Evolution


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]

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  • qet

    As far as I can tell, Musk’s proposal will not obviate the liability point made by McArdle. McArdle is right, of course, about the no-fault accident compensation scheme. That (and medmal as well) should be based on a worker’s comp-like system. Because what are damages awarded to auto accident victims in respect of? Death (a life insurance policy); injury (health care payments); pain & suffering/loss of consortium (nebulous concepts that reduce to the gut feeling that an injured party ought to get some additional money just, you know, for the trouble); punitive damages (society cannot afford these); attorneys’ fees (80% of which are socially unproductive). The first two components and even the third are amendable to standardized rate-setting and administration by an agency. The latter two should simply be eliminated or reduced to trivial proportions. So long as victims are promptly compensated for their actual injuries, justice is served. Automakers could fund the program and the cost would be passed on to car buyers. A far better system than our trial court-based law of negligence.

  • lukelea

    The biggest obstacle to driverless cares will be driver boredom I predict. Manufacturers better have some major entertainment modules in the works.

  • circleglider

    Fully autonomous cars – i.e., “driverless” – will remain in the realm of science fiction for a long, long time. One only needs to look at how automation has evolved in aircraft to see that human interaction will remain an essential control element of any vehicle – on the ground or in the air – that transports humans and does so in traffic with other vehicles. Today’s liability regimes simply reflect this reality, and will play no part (negative or positive) in their development.

    Then again, many people believe that today’s airliners “fly themselves.” Via Media is expected to know better.

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