The undeniable math of self-driving cars (update)

Automobiles have been around for slightly over a century now, transforming us into a highly mobile society. During that period we have clearly demonstrated that humans are horrendous drivers. You’d think we could figure it out after 100 years, but the statistics are astonishing. 2015 is on track for a banner 38,000 vehicular fatalities, that’s equal to 160 airliners crashing, or about one every other day. Boeing and Airbus wouldn’t have much of a business nor would we accept flying as an acceptable mode of travel with those kinds of numbers, but for some reason when it comes to cars we turn the other cheek.

Face it, we suck as drivers. We don’t follow simple safety rules. We drive too fast. We drive intoxicated and we are constantly distracted by our persistently chirping smartphones. Add in a dose of oblivion, rudeness and occasional outright rage and we are downright homicidal on the roads. Fortunately, our days of driving vehicles are numbered. Self-driving cars are coming. Frankly, that day can’t come soon enough.

My Tesla X features an autopilot which is clearly a gateway to full autonomy. It routinely drives me at highway speeds as well as the (far too common) stop-and-go traffic of the San Francisco Bay area. It smoothly changes lanes and even parallel parks. Once they integrate GPS routing and more sophisticated sensors it will be able to drive door to door. Elon Musk has indeed served up a tasty appetizer and despite a highly publicized fatality, Tesla’s are racking up record autonomously driven miles with safety statistics that exceed human drivers.

Chat with the folks at Google whose prototype self-driver goes cold turkey (it has no steering wheel or pedals), and they will tell you their cars are working just fine. Getting along with unpredictable law-breaking human drivers is the real challenge. For example the law requires you come to a complete stop at an intersection with a stop sign. Then after observing the traffic, you carefully proceed through. The typical human driver however, will slow down, glance in both directions and continue through without stopping. This is actually a “yield” and if you are so unlucky as to be caught by an observant police officer you stand to pay $100–500 for your impatience. Unlike the humans the Googlemobile will faithfully come to a complete stop as it’s algorithms instruct each and every time (no matter how intoxicated it’s occupants are). But there is a little problem. In test runs in real neighborhoods they have been rear-ended by tailgating human drivers who never expected it would actually come to a complete stop at that big red sign that says “STOP.” Why can’t we just get along?

Now that the technology of autonomous vehicles is in clear sight, our village elders are beginning to focus on the vexing issues of how robot cars and human piloted cars will integrate in the real world. First there is the issue of trust in the technology. I experienced about 30 minutes of anxiety the first time I relinquished control of my Tesla to the autopilot at highway speeds on busy I-80. But after observing it’s skills, I noted it keeps the car dead center in the lane rather then drifting around. Its sensors have a 360º picture of an 18 foot radius around the car at all times, well beyond human abilities. And it is very good at math. If the vehicle in front slams on its brakes — it senses the change in velocity and calculates own reaction to prevent a collision. This is something humans typically do pretty well, assuming they weren’t distracted by an incoming text at the precise moment they needed to react. Yeah — I’m in, 100%.

Today, the US Department of Transportation declared it is all in as well issuing a comprehensive policy and stating Autonomous Vehicles would help to reduce the 38,000 annual fatalities 95% of which are caused by human error.

State legislators? Not so much. They are stepping up to quickly put regulations in place to insure that robot cars don’t somehow wreak havoc upon our transportation system. I suppose they are worried about a cyber car uprising against pesky humans who slow down to gawk at accidents, resulting in those tedious rubber-necking delays. California, recently published its proposed regulations for self-driving cars. They intend to require a licensed driver positioned at the controls at all times. Really? They obviously have not looked at the math. The last thing we need is a human at the controls. As soon as autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous and affordable, human driving should be made illegal. Except perhaps at special driving resorts that are sure to emerge for old-timers who want to wax nostalgic behind the wheel of a roadster. Alternatively, we could always pop on a pair of Virtual Reality glasses and play vroom vroom right from the comfort of our living room.