Self-Driving Cars

The most dramatic part of the Internet of Things, or at least with a lot of potential, is self-driving cars.  Personally, I can’t wait.  All those wasted hours commuting could be better spent doing, well, anything else.  Rather than taking a flight somewhere I would be able to just jump in my car, tell it where I wanted to go, then take a nap while it took me there.  For a person who hates airports as much as me, this is damned near heaven.  Not to mention the thousands of lives potentially saved every year.  But there are disadvantages, of course.

I don’t know how many people are employed in the transportation business.  Delivery drivers, truck drivers, cab drivers, they’re all over the place.  And that’s a lot of people out of the job, potentially.  No doubt new opportunities would open up, but it’s safe to say that would up the unemployment rate a bit.  The drop in revenue for towns would be annoying.  No drivers means no speeding tickets, which means less revenue for towns that already rely on that income.  But honestly, that stuff doesn’t really bother me.  For one, when old industries die they typically don’t die entirely.  Movies didn’t completely eliminate plays, tv didn’t completely eliminate movies.  And in the ashes of the old industries new ones crop up, ones that no one predicted coming.  No, I’m more interested in how we’ll react to self-driving cars.

Somewhere around 30,000 people die every year in car crashes, nearly all of which can be attributed to some driver’s fault.  And, for the most part, we’re ok with that.  Those lives are worth the trade off of having cars and trucks.  Granted, we never explicitly made that deal, and we actively try to get that number down.  But not try so hard as to say, build more public transit, or more places that don’t require a car.  How many lives, I wonder, will we be ok with dying as the result of self-driving cars?  It would be highly unlikely that number would be zero, and even if it was, news moves fast, and any fake news about people as the result of a self-driving car would spread as fast as people could check their phones.

Eventually, people will trust their car to drive them where they’re going without any input at all.  Driving manually will seem suicidal.  But how will the transition look?  Right now there are basically no self-driving cars at all, certainly none that can handle the absurd complexity of the average gas station.  Sensors will get better.  Processors and algorithms will improve.  Eventually, a self-driving car will be trivial, from an engineering perspective.  But my guess is that people will overreact to any accidents whatsoever involving a self-driving car.  If that overreaction is large enough then we can expect laws against self-driving cars, encouraged by all the people about to lose their jobs and businesses, and towns that rely on speed traps for revenue.  This won’t stop self-driving cars, but it will slow them down.  I find that depressing.  Despite the fact that the technology will probably be good enough for these cars in the next ten years or so, I might not see them in my lifetime.  

The reaction against the Internet of Things is one thing that is going to slow it down, possibly to a crawl.  Next we will look at problems inherent in the technology that may be insurmountable.


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