American graffiti and happy days
Since the dawn of the 20th century we have become a nation wholly dependent on cars and trucks. The creation of the interstate highway system is rightly credited with improving commerce, increasing GDP dramatically, creating suburbia and changing the entire lifestyle of Americans. Despite horrendous environmental costs, this model has been adopted throughout the world and is here to stay.
That said, we have all wasted a good part of our lives sitting in traffic while literally burning money as fuel and inhaling toxic exhausts that negatively affect our health. Invariably we all come to view most other drivers as incompetent, incapacitated, inconsiderate and or lost in space. More often than not this is true, which makes something inherently dangerous still more dangerous.
Driving around any dense urban area is now nerve-rackingly crazy. Plus it is always impossible to find a place to park. Even when you do find a parking spot it is either absurdly expensive and or you need to stare down competing driver for it. Since no one really pays close attention to traffic laws, getting a ticket amounts to arbitrary enforcement and an absurdly expensive annoyance. Then there are accidents, both serious and parking lot nuisances, where insurance companies show us how powerless we really are. Bottom-line: driving is an expensive necessity in life that really sucks.
Where have all the flowers gone?
A few back of the envelope calculations based on 2010–14 data* bring the real darkness into focus. There are now some 250 million vehicles in the U.S. and approximately 10 million accidents a year. Annually, these accidents kill about 33,000 people and injure another 4 million. And, of course, the associated grief and the physical, emotional and psychological scarring that result cannot be quantified.
But here is the stunner. The overall cost of this carnage on our quality of life — lost income, lost productivity, short and long term medical expenses, property damage and repair costs, added traffic congestion, lost pets, and so on — is estimated at $836 billion a year. That is $2,700 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Annually it equals the total cost of the decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Further, despite what you may think, vehicle insurance premiums only cover about 25 percent of these costs, and government less than 10 percent. That means medical insurance, employers, you and me wind up eating 65 percent of the total cost. That translates into $627 billion or $2,000 per person annually, literally adding insult to injury. Bottom-line: this is a human tragedy and an incredible waste of money.
A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver!
This brings us to self-driving cars and trucks. Based on everything published, these cars appear to be better for society on every possible metric.
Safer, virtually zero accident propensity, eliminates the problem of impaired (i.e., intoxicated, sleepy, distracted, elderly, mentally and physically infirmed or disabled) and inexperienced (i.e., young) drivers, effectively eliminates road-rage and reckless driving, reduce road congestion, significantly reduces vehicle repairs and costs, likely less polluting, reduces insurance cost significantly, cheaper to operate, virtually eliminate traffic and parking violations, and reduces the need for parking lots, and stalls.
What is most important, however, is that when one self-driving car make a mistake not only does that one car learn how avoid the same mistake, but every other car — now and in the future — learns with updated software. People cannot do this. So, self-driving cars will always be safer because they learn faster and better than we can.
So it is no surprise that virtually every automaker expects to have a self-driving car ready for sale within 2–3 years. Yet, government regulations for self-driving cars are 3 -5 years further away. To be sure, beyond the usual issues of reliability and safety, there are new issues of software bugs and hacking, vehicle to vehicle communication systems, collision avoidance systems, etc. Further, given the abysmal historical track record of automakers in terms of honesty and safety, this delay seems logical.
What is critical to acknowledge is that self-driving cars, trucks and buses are an inevitable positive for every aspect of our lifestyle, society and civilization. Saving lives and suffering alone is reason enough to accelerate their immediate and widespread usage. Add to this the direct and indirect economic benefit to individuals, businesses and the overall economy and what we have is a historic change — a classic paradigm shift. Something this big and an obvious benefit to all is a unique occurrence in civilization. We need to seize it — NOW!
Winners — Whether viewed from a practical, economic, or humanitarian perspective self-driving cars a will be an extraordinary improvement in everyone’s daily quality of life. Fleets of cars always available on-demand (e.g., Uber, Lyft, automakers) will make owning a car and all the associated costs a bad choice rather than necessity. Businesses and social services can add pick-up and delivery services to their core offerings.
These cars — which can now be built for an infinite variety of people and load sizes and capacities— enable large scale mass transportation with or without the “mass” component. For urban planners traffic patterns and congestion are mitigated significantly. Bikers and pedestrian will be far safer. Hospitals will see less trauma cases. Police will be better able to focus on real crime because moving or parking violations will be a thing of the past. Real estate for parking lots and home garages become useable commercial and living spaces. Ironically, insurance company profit margins are likely to improve with far fewer claims and thus lower overhead.
Losers — The new and used car dealers we all love to hate will be among the biggest losers. While a traditional car ownership remains an option, insurance companies will make it an expensive luxury. Meanwhile, since owning your own self-driving car will make no economic sense doing so will relegate ownership to a status symbol. Gas stations and auto repair shops are likely to slowly merge into fleet services. Owners of parking lots will repurpose their real estate to a higher and better uses. State and municipal governments will see a major decline in revenue from lost traffic and parking fines.
Then there are the estimated 4 million taxi, limo, truck and bus drivers who will become superfluous. Taxi and limo drivers will need to find new jobs — pronto. Many truck and bus drivers may see a transition period where they ride along as a backup or failsafe (i.e., featherbedding). But the massive databases self-driving cars and trucks generate and the algorithms employing them suggests that even this transition will be relatively brief.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way
We now have an extraordinary opportunity to simultaneously improve the quality of life of everyone, productivity and the economy virtually overnight. So, what we need is a surgical procedure to avoid a protracted transition to a safer, healthier, wealthier existence. That is, a national program to accelerate this inevitable change.
Of course politicians and officials will protest accelerating the changeover, claiming such a program would be too disruptive and we should let the free market make the change. But this is sophomoric sophistry. The real cost in lives and injuries, and economic costs generally, suggest this transition needs to be pushed forward fast — now. Moreover, given that the human costs of auto related carnage far exceeds all terrorism concerns, any delay is criminal. For example, even if self-driving care were just 50 percent safer — which seems a no-brainer — the benefits to our lives and the economy more than justify immediate action.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find you get what you need
When it comes to free market talk, tell that to the bankers, automakers, defense contractors, and others that have and continue to circumvent free market ideals with corporate welfare. Fact is it is always amazing how, without real public discussion, politicians can find billions of dollars whenever they really want to help their friends.
We saw this with the TARP financial bailout, bailout of the auto industry, insurance and mortgage companies, the many wars over the last couple of decades, and all of the new security and surveillance programs instituted. Similarly there gobs of money spent when officials fear we might fall behind technologically, e.g., the space program, Sematech semiconductor industry, Star-Wars, etc. Oh, and the four plus trillion dollars the Federal Reserve magically created since 2008 to mitigate the financial meltdown.
Fact is that beyond dogmatic ideologues, the real concern for politicians is campaign contributions from all the small special interests that will need to readjust their businesses practices and holdings. Fortunately, for these politicians, the Supreme Court and their own self-interest legislation has enabled them to collect endless amounts from anonymous big money donors to offset these smaller donors.
Bottom-line: self-driving cars are not a luxury. They represent an extraordinary paradigm shift in the course of civilization. Again, the human and economic cost resulting from any delay is criminal. We need to make sure politicians and government officials know this.
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