How to Introduce Autonomous Cars Without Cooking the Planet

by Andrew McAfee on April 18, 2012

Many of us can’t wait for autonomous cars, and would pay a lot to have one and be freed up from the hassles of driving. State governments should welcome autonomous cars, too. As Sebastian Thrum convincingly argues, they’ll be safer than human-piloted ones. And they’ll pretty clearly lead to better traffic flow (because they can drive so close to each other) and fewer parking hassles.

In fact, the only real problem with them that I can see is that they might lead to more total miles driven. I know I’d take a lot more road trips if I didn’t have to drive during them. And I value the convenience of car travel enough (no one makes me take off my shoes) that I’m willing to pay for the gas, even if it becomes expensive.

More miles driven by globe-warming cars is not great news for the globe. But a solution seems straightforward, at least in theory: states should initially allow autonomous cars only if they’re also zero / low emission vehicles. As a sweetener to this deal, they could allow these cars to use carpool lanes at all times, and let the passengers text, telecommute, read, watch TV, and do whatever else to their heart’s content.

I would take this deal in a heartbeat. I would buy the pokiest, least sexy, dorkiest car ever made if it freed me from driving, and I’d recharge it / refill it with whatever was necessary. I’d do so even if the car were a lot more expensive than its closest non-autonomous equivalent, or than most other vehicles on the road.

And I think I’m far from alone on this. I bet there are literally millions more like me in America alone. If this is right, we’d instantly become a big market for zero emissions vehicles, which would drive their prices down via economies of scale.

I understand that autonomous cars aren’t yet ready for prime time. But they will be pretty soon. States can and should get ready for this day not by finding ways to disallow these vehicles or constrain their spread, but by designing legislation that uses their advent to accomplish as many societal goals as possible.

I think the proposal outlined here would accomplish several such goals. Do you agree?

  • http://twitter.com/MeganMurray Megan Murray

    I can certainly see this happening before I’m gone. We’ve got some sorting out to do when it comes to human acceptance however.  We’re all pretty hip to the notion that tech oft times arrives well before we can wrap our brains around leveraging it meaningfully. For humans, there’s a lot more to a car than the act of driving. Art appreciation, projected personas, testosterone (gals do have it too), exhilaration and power. Not to mention the odd way that driving has of turning intelligent, thoughtful people into risk taking maniacs (not that I’ve ever behaved in that fashion… if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I’d love to chat about). Just look at those fatality numbers. I’m guessing there are many intelligent folks represented there. Forgiving a percentage for not being at fault, there are a number of folk who accepted the thrill or the trade off of risk that an AV wouldn’t. 

    Consider the prevalence of and cultural norms around speeding. It’s common on many American highways for the speed limit to be viewed as a speed minimum. Would AVs share the road with non-AVs? Would an AV be capable of speeding? Would speeding matter any more in an AV world? How about insurance? Would I get a better rate if I had an AV? Would I be punished if I didn’t have one? Many intriguing layers to this one. Perhaps I’ll invest in a track now. I’ll draw retirement income from renting track time to folks who miss their road rage. 

  • Miles Kehoe

    An additional large audience for autonomous cars is people with low vision from birth such as those with albanism. I’ll point out that Nevada has apparently approved  regulations that have to be met for these autonomous vehicles to travel on roads in the state. They provide a target for the design of these vehicle,s and I think it shows great insight. It’s a shame my home state, California, hasn’t shown much interest yet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Maxwell-Mwaura/1093412376 Maxwell Mwaura

    How about the Segway? Then one would only need to instruct, embark, and disembark one. No, Mr. McAfee, I don’t agree: the autonomous car shouldn’t be for everyone. If it is about the hassles of driving to work, then taxi owners are one of the best target for this system. commuters are best served paying for the service, so they can be setting their minds on that which is at their destination, or whatever else that takes their fancy. This is the blessing school children who use the school bus have been enjoying: no destination-reaching effort hassles.  It has already been a bad idea to commute to and from work using self-owned transport.
    And as for security, let me just say that the system would create more opportunities for grief than it would pleasure, given a reasonable cycle of ownership. I would wish to let you conjure some of the thrillers?

  • JOE

    I THINK THE U S A SHOULD GET THE AUTONOMOUS CARS ON THE ROAD AND LEGAL IN ALL STATES AND STOP THEIR FOOLING AROUND SO THAT EVERYONE CAN ENJOY THE INDEPENDENCE AND THE MOBILITY THEY WILL GIVE TO EVERYONE AND ALL THE LIVES THEY WILL SAVE. THERE ARE MORE PLUSES THAN NEGATIVES SO U S A GET OFF YOUR BACKSIDES AND GET THE AUTONOMOUS CARS LEGAL IN ALL STATES AND GET THEM ON THE ROAD NOW.

  • http://twitter.com/snoble Steven H. Noble

    A friend of mine (@tobi:twitter ) recently pointed out to me another big green win for autonomous cars (and perhaps the biggest convenience win). Autonomous cars should reduce two and three car homes to becoming one car homes. Previously a household would need two cars, even if work schedules were staggered, because once the first commuter left, the car is gone. But an autonomous car can come back home to drive the second commuter.
    This opens the door to many more car sharing options that previously were impossible. Yes, each car will be producing more emissions (of course your proposal resolves this). But this is compensated for by the reduced emissions from producing fewer cars. Plus there is the land win of few parking lots.
    Although, the fear is that Jevons paradox would mean making cars more efficient would actually increase their production. Seems unlikely though.

  • Tubbs LOD

    Thank you , Megan. You brought up a lot of interesting points. I am about to present the AV to a group of investors and I will take some of your points into my speech.

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