How long before we lose the privilege of driving altogether?
Last week, Mark Goldfeder, a senior lecturer at Emory Law School, speculated that our grandchildren will conceivably live in a world where driving is not only obsolete but also illegal. We’re talking about humans, that is. If you’re a robot, then by all means have at it. After all, robots are smarter than people, right?
Goldfeder’s article for CNN.com, which has since made it to the top of my “Interesting Ideas” list, revolves around a piece of news coming out of California: a minor accident involving one of Google’s self-driving cars. The Google car, attempting to avoid sand bags in the middle of its lane, veered left and bonked into the side of a bus. It’s not the first time a Google car has been involved in an accident, but it is the first time Google’s top brass was willing to accept that the Google car should bare a sliver of responsibility for the mishap. The company’s PR team released a statement saying as much. For the naysayers, this was the perfect chance to say boo. And most of them did, even if the crash was relatively minor.
The incident is an irritating setback for Google, which, despite its goal of ridding the world of crashes, still has work to do. But for the autonomous car movement, the incident is somewhat of a milestone. You see, in order for cars to be safer than people, they have to think differently. The advantage of the robot is that it can think and analyze in a fraction of a second, and it too can learn from past experience based on algorithms as opposed to emotion or intuition. When a person is driving and reasonably expects to be involved in an imminent crash, the person has limited options: crash; avoid the crash; or choose a calculated path that’s less injurious than the initial crash threat. What do we tell our robots to do? What is reasonable?
Goldfeder addresses the “reasonable driver” standard prevalent in tort law: “Simply put, if a driver can show he took as much care as a ‘reasonable driver’ should have taken, he is generally not held liable in case of an accident.
“Until now, that just meant comparison to a reasonable person. But if a ‘driver’ can now be defined both as a ‘reasonable person’ and as a computer — one that can react on the roadway 10 times faster than the average human being — then what does it mean to say ‘reasonable driver’ anymore?”
In essence, Goldfeder argues that the future of “reasonable” driving is far more sophisticated than what we’re currently working with. Machines are smarter, faster and, based on the early statistics, much less prone to error than humans. So if a machine is effectively 10 times the safer driver, where does that leave officials who are tasked with defining what the term “reasonable” means in the future?
Goldfeder cites several numbers that prove, up to this point, that humans are responsible for thousands of preventable crashes every day. Judging by the many miles traveled by Google’s cars over the past few years, a single crash is way better than the norm (though there has been at least one time when the Google car was ticketed for driving to slow).
We’ve come to a point where it’s no longer far-fetched to consider the day when federal regulators deem human-based driving illegal altogether. Because humans, in comparison, are unsafe. Goldfeder isn’t suggesting that competent drivers are inherently dangerous, but he is suggesting that even the safest drivers are less safe than autonomous vehicles. Think of it this way: if a drunk driver is 100 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a sober driver, who’s to say the same logic shouldn’t apply to a car that can, theoretically, operate 100 times safer than a man or woman?
I’ve followed the development of driverless cars to make a few educated observations, and one of them is that “smart cars” are becoming more sophisticated, and they’re poised to assume a large role in the future of transportation. Did you hear about Dominos’ autonomous pizza delivery vehicle? Even Amazon’s rumored shipping drone could transform into an AV plan. The bigger question for us living and breathing folks isn’t if our driving skills will become obsolete, but how long before we’re ready to hand over the keys.