I’ll say it plain and simple: driverless cars are the future. Anybody in the way of this progress will quickly find themselves on the wrong side of history and common sense. The bad news is that we still have to wait for the technology to develop to consumer-usable levels. The good news is that we have the time now to adapt laws and culture to what will be a revolution in personal transport, safety, efficiency and urban planning. This is a rare moment where the law will keep up with, or may even stay a step ahead of, technological advancement. Yes, I’m in favor of driverless cars, and you should be too.
Your own private, door-to-door train car. (Source: Mercedes-Benz)
The precursor technology to truly self-driving cars is common on most cars sold today. Lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking are safety-oriented upgrades made possible by ever-vigilant on-board computers and an array of sensors. Companies like Google, Audi and Tesla have shown off highly modified passenger vehicles that are essentially supercomputers on wheels, able to navigate planned courses, racetracks and even urban traffic without any human intervention. Google’s fleet of driverless cars has racked up a surprising number of miles and an even more impressive safety record, which is great news for future hands-off cars. A recent and more experimental venture by our overlords at Google gives us a glimpse of what cars may look like in the future, devoid of internal combustion engines and any control in the passenger cabin save a touchscreen computer. With Google’s massive investments in Uber, it’s pretty clear that on-demand driverless vehicles will be all the rage in the near future. Of course, there are a plethora of challenges and limitations to overcome, including the massive costs involved in building and selling a whole fleet of vehicles.
As of today, self-driving cars struggle in too many situations to be considered stable for the consumer market including unmapped roads, inclement weather and unpredictable interactions with various kinds of road users. If Google has not yet mapped a particular road, then its cars will not have enough data to navigate it safely, though that is not much of a problem with the company’s growing global database. In its current state, the laser system the cars rely on for guidance is useless when it starts to rain, so it’s a good thing all those test vehicles on the road can still be manually piloted. Fortunately, the search giant is headquartered here in sunny California where rain is a myth spoken of by people from some place called “Seattle.”
As for the rest of us plebs on the road who still prefer to be in charge of our own wheels, we present the biggest problem for those rolling computers: human error. Sure, the state has a set of codes that dictate how we should behave on the road, but most of us (especially motorcyclists) have a habit of following our own (often unpredictable) codes. More importantly, people make mistakes because we simply don’t pay attention to our surroundings, which results in the oh-so-common rear end crash. How driverless cars interact with us stupid humans will be a tremendous challenge to overcome, especially in dense cities where pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and other cars blindly push their way through to their destination.
While we wait for the nerds in Silicon Valley to develop the cars themselves, the bureaucrats in Sacramento and Washington have time to clear up the laws that will let us put these things on the road. One of the major questions that has to be dealt with is determining who to hold liable in the case of an accident. Technically, since the passengers inside the car will not be in control, they can’t really be blamed for crashing their car—that would be the fault of the company who made it. In California (much like in other states) we are required to carry liability insurance in the event we hurt someone or their property. If we were to blame a company such as Google for every accident caused by the cars they have sold to individuals, they’ll soon be bankrupt from lawsuits.
Attorney Ralph Jacobson’s found the easiest and most streamlined solution to adapting our laws to fit these new situations, and I’m not just saying that because his name is on my paycheck. In short, his model would simply require that owners of driverless cars carry insurance just the same way we do now for our own manually operated vehicles. Robert Peterson, another attorney in the area, is heavily quoted in an SF Chronicle article for his suggestion that we eliminate private auto insurance entirely. His solution is a governmental compensation program such as what we have now for people injured by vaccines—one that is tax funded and administrated by the Federal Government. In an ideal world, a government insurance program would provide a fair and cost-efficient solution for those injured in driverless car accidents. Unfortunately, we have no idea how common these new types of accidents will be; we can’t establish a new tax in an information vacuum.
The choice we are left with is keeping private insurance policies, and insuring ourselves much in the same way we do now. The profit-incentivized benefits are that insurance companies will develop usable insurance policies and will complete the task as quickly as possible. We can’t really expect the government to be effective and spirited in the same manner. Of course, once enough data has been collected on accident rates, the government could step in and force a national compensation program on us (not that the insurance companies would let them) and eliminate the inefficiencies of profit-driven business (in favor of bureaucratic inefficiencies).
So what does all this mean for motorcyclists? Stay tuned.