Rise of the Robot Cars

Bureaucrats stand athwart technological progress, yelling stop.


The Tesla S is the closest thing to a totally driverless car available now. I had to leave my state to test-drive it. New York's archaic laws forbid taking both hands off the wheel.

Once outside New York, the Tesla representative in the passenger seat had me turn on the autopilot.

Suddenly, I was doing nothing. The car drove itself.

Actually, I didn't do nothing. I hyperventilated. It's not natural to sit passively while "driving" at 65 mph.

Then came my accident! In a narrow tunnel, the car drifted left, and a tire banged against the side of the tunnel. If I hadn't quickly grabbed the steering wheel, we would have crashed.

Was the computer-guided car unable to handle a narrow tunnel? No, it turned out the mistake, as usual, was human error—my error. I had nervously touched the steering wheel when we entered the tunnel, and that disengaged the autopilot. The Tesla guy didn't warn me. Or maybe he did, but I forgot.

Once I learned how the car works, I found the driverless car pretty wonderful, although weird. It's counterintuitive to trust a computer to handle a car's sharp turns or stop-and-go traffic.

But it does work. That's the big point—driverless cars are safer than we drivers are. Ninety-four percent of people killed in car crashes are killed because of human error.

The car's sensors see when I'm approaching another car. They see better than we do. They are our future, says economist James Miller.

I asked him why drivers should trust the computer. After all, computers crash!

"People know that machines are better than people at a lot of tasks," was his smart answer. "Our brains are basically machines—but not machines optimized for going 65 miles an hour." As for "crashing," he points out that computer buyers aren't willing to spend extra money for a backup system, but drivers definitely will.

Robot cars may soon save 30,000 lives a year, if bureaucrats let them. It will be a battle. The technology is way ahead of our laws.

Soon after my car was driving itself, I got bored. So I picked up a newspaper.

"Not a good idea, John!" scolded my Tesla copilot. He reminded me that state laws say a human driver must always be "in control."

It would also be against the law if I had gone to sleep. But someday, that will be an option. Commuting will be much less stressful.

Because robot cars are safer, insurance rates will drop. Some people will still want to drive themselves, and those people will pay a little more. That's fine, but then our authoritarian government will probably switch gears and ban "dangerous human driving."

Maybe that will be the libertarian controversy in 2021.

Freedom doesn't mean doing anything you want. It means, in part, deciding when to give up control and when to retain it. It also means doing nothing that directly harms others. Giving up some control to machines has been a benefit for centuries.

Robot cars will take away jobs from some taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery men, etc. Unions, The New York Times and maybe Donald Trump will demand laws to "protect" those jobs. But that's a mistake.

"Experts" always say automation will create unemployment. In 1930, a New York Times headline said: "Economists predict number of men employed will decline." But the opposite has happened. Forty-six million Americans had jobs when that headline ran; now 150 million do.

Technology did destroy some jobs. Ninety percent of Americans once worked on farms. Now just 2 percent do. Somehow, today those 2 percent grow more food for less money. A hundred million Americans found other jobs.

This is a great thing.

Farm work was grueling, dangerous and time-consuming. Better agricultural technology frees people up to do safer, more interesting jobs. It also allows people more leisure. Think how many things we're free to do now that we grow food with the help of tractors.

Maybe someday we will look at driving cars the way we now look at farming with a mule.


NEXT: Known Drunk Driver-Hating Officer Who Blatantly Shot a Drunk Driver for No Apparent Reason Loses Job, Indicted for Involuntary Manslaughter [UPDATED]

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  1. They still can't fly.

    1. BTTF 2 lied to me.

  2. The government needs to fund infrastructure for these new cars.

  3. Trains and busses can carry more people, who then have to walk to their final destination.

    1. They need to walk because obesity

  4. "Some people will still want to drive themselves, and those people will pay a little more. That's fine, but then our authoritarian government will probably switch gears and ban "dangerous human driving."

    If they come for my motorcycle, all bets are off.

    1. Trikes only, by government mandate. Also, what if they just came for your helmet?

      1. They can't have my helmet either. They can take their concern for my safety and shove it up their asses. I'm not selling my autonomy short--and freedom of movement is autonomy.

        Oh, and the physics on those trikes are weird. Trikes are far more dangerous than motorcycles--except for the ones with two wheels in front.

    2. Oh, very well. Self-driving *motorcycles*.

  5. This is how skynet starts.

    1. +drones everywhere

      Skynet starts with automated air traffic control.

      Time for people to brush up on their C.S. Lewis.


  6. I bet China/Russia could hack it and take over our country before they invade.

  7. I saw an episode of elementary where a self driving car was used as a murder weapon.

    1. I saw an episode of Murder She Wrote where a self driving car made Jessica poop in her depends.

      1. Citation need -- oh, never mind.

        1. It was actually a remote-controlled van, not a self-driving vehicle.

    2. That's because using a regular car as a murder weapon is so pass

  8. Lack of gasoline purchases means there isn't enough tax revenue to maintain highways.

    1. Robert Poole has the answer to that: public toll roads AND GPS tracked pay-per-mile road taxes.

      1. I don't want solutions here. Listing problems.

  9. You should have to pass a civic literacy test to vote and demonstrate the ability to operate a clutch and select your own gears in order to drive.

    1. And maintain a hard on for 2 hours before you're allowed to copulate.

      1. Good thing I got my license at 16.

        1. That's another good example.

          My grandfather told me all about how it was before anybody needed a drivers' license.

          Now they use those to track everything about you. It has a data strip on the back and everything.

          The new ones will have a chip.

          1. "The new ones will have a chip."

            That's just the first step.

            Later the chip will be implanted into you brain.

            The state will then monitor every where you go - and decide everywhere you are allowed to go and everything you are allowed to do.

  10. When papa Johns buys a fleet of these how many jobs will this technology kill?

    1. Papa Johns be using drones.

      But who will need truck drivers anymore?

      Who will need traffic cops anymore?

      Who needs cab drivers, bus drivers, driving instructors, . . . , auto insurance adjusters?

      Over the long run, efficiency only adds to the general prosperity. But in the short run, being a buggy whip isn't a good thing if the world doesn't need buggy whips anymore. The welfare state will expand. Most of the displaced will just try to hang on until they can qualify for Medicare and Social Security--and try to qualify for some kind of disability in the meantime--which is what displaced workers have been doing for decades.

      This won't be the first time human labor has been displaced by machines.

      1. I'm just trying to get all the bad arguments out there before someone tried to make them who actually believes them.

        1. I don't like driverless cars.

          I think people should be free to use the, but I don't personally like them.

          I appreciate how they might mean less government intrusion in our lives, but I hope other people appreciate how they might introduce more control by government in our lives, too. Mr. Stossel seems to appreciate that.

          I'm reminded of the excellent book "The Net Delusion" by Evgeny Morozov


          It points out that social media is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good or bad. Facebook and Twitter let people connect during the Arab Spring and coordinate their protests against vicious dictators, but social media also let vicious dictators track dissenters and follow their connections to other dissenters--that is, dissenters the dictators wouldn't have known about otherwise.

          Email gave us the ability to communicate with people around the world like never before--it also let the government track who we talk to and what we say like they never could before.

          1. "...dissenters the dictators wouldn't have known about otherwise."

            No, it just changed torture to more of a hobby than a job...

        2. I'm of the opinion that the reason the government didn't try to track our phone calls, emails, etc. before was because it was technologically impossible or prohibitively expensive for them to do so. Once it became both technologically possible and sufficiently inexpensive, they started filtering through our phone calls, emails, etc.--simply becasue they could.

          I would expect the same thing with driverless cars. Yes, it will give people freedom they didn't have before. And it will subject them to government control in other ways--like they were never subjected to it before.

          People forfeiting their autonomy is highly suspect to me. I generally prefer more autonomy to more safety (even if and when that is a real dichotomy). That's probably a big part of what makes me a libertarian.

          1. I'm with you. I like to speed and make quick decisions to change course or make a random unscheduled stop. But, I also like sleeping in, which I could do more of if I get to sleep on my commute. It's a tough hypothetical.

            1. I like driving in city traffic. But that trip to Vegas, or the Bay Area would be nice to sit back, look at the scenery and snuggle with the missus while the car does the driving.

              1. The ultimate driverless car?

                It has your bed in it, and it fits into a slot in your bedroom. It pulls out of your house and down a driveway from your bedroom with you still asleep inside the car. An alarm wakes you up when you get a half hour or so from work--so you can take a shower inside your "car" (more like the size of a van). Who cares about the commute time if your car drives you halfway to work while you're still asleep?

            2. One of the drawbacks of driverless cars gets buried in the headlines.

              They say that the only accidents that have happened with driverless cars is when they get hit by other careless drivers. Somebody rear ends somebody at a stop light, that's not the driverless car's fault, right?

              Well, um, as someone who rides a motorcycle through traffic every day, I'm here to tell you that if I don't avoid accidents that would be other drivers' fault, I'd die ten times a year.

              In motorcycle safety school, they'll teach you all about how to avoid accidents that would be other people's fault. If you rear end me at a stop light--I promise you, it's only because I wasn't paying attention! I don't care what the law or the insurance company says is my fault and your fault--I care about avoiding getting rear ended on my motorcycle and killed. So I plan an escape route before I pull up to a stop light, and I watch in my mirror to make sure the people behind me won't plow into me.

              If driverless cars can't avoid those accidents that I can? Then driverless cars are woefully inadequate compared to me and my safety record. There are multiple driverless cars that have been hit by drunk, stupid, and careless drivers.

              I've never been hit once.

              1. The driverless cars ARE doing this. They arrange themselves on the hiway so that they aren't in your blind spot. They take special care at intersections if it looks like someone is about to turn left in front of you. Indeed, some of the "quirks" reported of driverless cars is that they perceive and react to many of the threats that humans don't notice or that are so low probability that we ignore them.

                When I was first learning to drive (15), I was riding in a vehicle that was hit in an intersection. It took me years to stop over-reacting and jamming hard on the breaks whenever I saw someone crossing too fast in an intersection (note these people never entered the intersection, they just slowed down real quickly.)

                The point is that the current crop of driverless cars are designed to be autonomous- protecting the driver without coordinating en masse. Yes, we can expect safety to improve as more people switch to robot cars, but the designers are expecting that to take many, many years.

                1. "The driverless cars ARE doing this. They arrange themselves on the hiway so that they aren't in your blind spot. They take special care at intersections if it looks like someone is about to turn left in front of you."

                  A driverless car sitting at a stop light isn't going to break traffic rules to avoid some drunk barreling in behind me and looking straight through me on my motorcycle like I'm not even there.

                  But I can do that! I do it all the time!

                  In this example, I'm not gauging the safety of driverless cars as compared to drivers of average intelligence and ability. I'm gauging driverless cars as compared to me on my motorcycle!

                  Because of my skill level and defensive driving techniques (some of which are illegal), I am safer from drunk drivers coming up behind me than people in a driverless car are.

                  Like I said, numerous driverless cars have been rear ended. That's never happened to me on my motorcycle--and so long as I stay alert, it never will. I contend that my abilities--and my track record for safety--are superior to those of any driverless car.

                  1. On a long enough timeline, autonomous vehicles, being an information technology, will become sufficiently inexpensive and will propagate through the national fleet to a point where drunk or distracted driving will become significantly diminished.

              2. Sounds like an edge case to me.

                1. Nobody is building self-driving motorcycles.
                2. Self-driving cars will be less likely to rear-end others (including you) at stop lights.

                1. 1. Nobody is building self-driving motorcycles.


      2. So, papa Johns causes skynet?

        1. If by "skynet" you mean "explosive diarrhea", then yes. Papa John's causes skynet.

        2. My understanding is that Google, NASA, Amazon, Facebook, Verizon Wireless, et. al. are already coordinating to develop a working air traffic control system and protocol.

          There are a bunch of ongoing projects. I've read about one called "SkyWard".

          I don't think there are any new laws of physics that need to be discovered for this. It's just software and infrastructure roll out.

          It's happening!

          1. I think coordinating the cars and navigating streets with an air traffic control type coordinating system is the easy part. The hard part is going to be figuring out how not to mow down passengers. In my city, along certain streets, people just seek to randomly dart out into the street, off the curb, from between cars, against stoplights and cross signals. I know the cars are equipped to detect this, but my gut tells me that 4th Street between Atlantic and Redondo is going to be a bloodbath.

            1. +1 Hawthorne Blvd.

              1. So I guess Darwin will rip through the population of those risk-takers who don't figure out and adapt their behavior to the new mechanized, chip-driven traffic realities.

            2. The question is whether a car can be at least as good as people at doing this. That is an open question, but I wouldn't bet against the car. Sometimes it is as simple as driving a bit more slowly through areas with high foot traffic. One thing is clear- if a car won't be as good at predicting someone is going to jump out in front of you, it will still have better reaction time when they do.

              1. My guess is the implication that humans get a jump on reaction time by exercising heightened precaution (slowing down, covering the brake pedal, etc.). There is no reason why an autonomous vehicle with sufficient field of view cannot be programmed to be just as cautious. It would always be paying attention though. The same cannot be said for even the majority of human drivers though.

            3. Another thing to consider is that cars could communicate. You're car may not see the pedestrian, but the car coming the other way just might.

  11. I'll have a robot car if it can have the personality of Flexo.

      1. If you're lucky, you'll get HAL 9000. If you're unlucky, you'll get Hillary.

        1. Or you could get HIL 9000, who would refuse your commands and call you a sexist for ordering her to do anything in the first place.

  12. Seems like a lot more people would be able to use cars. No reason why a six year old, a blind person, or someone who is drunk couldn't use a truly self driving car.

    Actually, it isn't that new of an idea. My father would drive a wagon into town on Saturday night, get drunk, fall asleep in the back of the wagon, and the horse would take him home because it knew it had to get home to get fed.

    1. Are you like 137?

      1. Travelling by horse was still quite common into the 1940's. The world has changed a lot more than we can remember sometimes.

        Of course in many ways it hasn't changed much at all in thousands of years. People being people and all....

        1. So, 127?

          Also, your dad was a genius.

          1. Horses are elitist. Goat wagons and dog carts for the masses.

            1. What about ostrich carts? That way we aren't oppressing mammals.

          2. Actually, I think it was the horses idea.

        2. Also note that before steam engines were optimized to some degree and enough track was laid the fastest reliable way to get from one point to another was by horse. Only a ship could be faster but that was always dependent on the weather. The horse was the best way to go from the invention of the stirrup until reliable railways existed.

  13. These will just encourage more sitting, which is worse than smoking.

    1. That's why I only smoke standing or lying down. Except when I'm manually operating a motor vehicle while taking full responsibility for my actions. Who takes responsibility for accidents with self-driving cars? It sure as hell isn't going to be the manufacturers.

      1. Ooh! That's another problem. LIABILITY!

        1. If you think the developers of driverless cars aren't already in negations with insurance companies, I've got some nice beachfront property in Colorado to sell you.

        2. Google, Mercedes, and Volvo are way ahead on this.


      2. Who takes responsibility for accidents with self-driving cars?

        Same entity that takes responsibility for accidents with regular cars: insurance. It will be priced according to how accident prone the cars are... probably a lot less than for human drivers.

  14. How will municipalities make up for traffic ticket revenue?

      1. But THAT would force the municipalities to admit these are revenue generators, not safety measures.

        1. They can live with that.

  15. The problem is those won't be optional. How long until you are banned from driving your own car? The Car is one of the greatest enablers of freedom, which is why statists hate cars and want to cram you in trains instead

    1. I got this....

      "You know who else crammed people in trains?"

      (how'd I do?)

      1. I can think of some people who crammed themselves into trans...

  16. Only the rich will be able to drive themselves, leading to further disparity amongst the classes.

    1. Only the rich can afford liability insurance for all the proles who aren't responsible for accidents caused by their self-driving cars.

  17. The Koch Bros. like self driving cars.

  18. If people don't have to worry about drinking and driving a massive rise in alcohol abuse will cause the degredation of the family and society.

  19. If people don't have to worry about drinking and driving a massive rise in alcohol abuse will cause the degredation of the family and society.

    1. Squirrels can hack the cars, making them go to two places at once.

      1. Self-driving cars will be part of the "internet of things" if some nefarious entity hacks the system and causes massive accidents the government will step in and make everyone whole.After all, neither the rider/owner not the manufacturer will have any responsibility at all.

        1. If we are all reaponsible, no one is.

    2. Oh they'll still arrest you for being drunk. Because they can.

      1. ^this.

  20. Black boxes are already in 96% of new cars.

  21. More crap that can break.

    And just wait for the EPA to put limits on how hard you can accelerate and whether you can speed. It's a petty bureaucrat's dream.

    1. "It's a petty bureaucrat's WET dream." FTFY.

  22. Given that my entire day job revolves around fixing broken computers, I have learned how easily they go awry. I do not trust these systems. Though at times I may have expressed interest in having a self-driving vehicle, I was focused more on the theoretical than the practical. In theory, it would be nice. In practice, it would be terrifying. I am especially opposed to google's fucking stupid insistance that their computer car should not have manual overrides for the people inside to tell it "No you're doing something stupid". This is even more prevalent when observing the bone-stupid things google's other code bases do in defiance of the wishes of the human operators.

    No, google, you do not know what I want better than I do. Stop pushing your assumptions on my searches.

    1. The human brain is a million times more powerful than the fastest computer. I tend to agree with you.

  23. I would love a self-driving car. However, I shan't hold my breath waiting for a practical one just yet.

    I suppose having them would be worth it, so we would never have to see Flo or the Gecko ever again...

    1. You could always just give up your TV.

      Joing the smug side.

      Join us.

  24. Where's the evidence that they're safer? The same kind of computer models and anecdotes that are used to prove that global warming is going to kill us all five years ago?

    1. No, in this case they can actually test those models in reality, and will be held accountable (by lawsuits) if the models don't perform as predicted.

  25. Safety is mostly about defensive driving and anticipating what the other guy is going to do. I question a computers ability to be that nuanced.

    1. And yet they are. Defensive driving is just about some simple rules- don't hang out in people's blind spots, envisioning a bubble around your and others' cars and seeking to keep them from touching instead of your cars, driving at safe speeds given the conditions on the road and recognizing on-coming or crossing traffic. Following these basic rules isn't difficult or even that nuanced- people just don't do it.

      If anything, the main complaints about driverless cars is that they tend to be too cautious. They will slow down at intersections when the person turning left in front of you has crept too far into the intersection, etc. The trick has been in getting the cars to take more risks, not to identify risks that we already see.

      I'm not saying that driverless cars are a panacea, but a lot of what we as humans consider "intuition" is just 1) our ability to sense our environment and 2) our ability to integrate all these senses to pick out important signals even if they are small or crowded with lots of extra noise. And machine learning is extremely good at doing this. The same techniques computers have been using to match faces from grainy pictures and decipher human speech from crowded rooms are the same techniques that can recognize a car ready to perform a threatening maneuver.

  26. Wow man that makes a lot of sense dude.


  27. When you pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead hands.

    ...except on long boring interstate highway roadtrips. And the daily commute to/ form work.

    Which now that I think about it, probably comprises at least 90% of the driving I do. Oh well.

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  29. Software developer here... The concept seems nice for some situations, but I'll drive myself for now, thank you. Unless they let me do a complete code review.

  30. til I saw the receipt that said $6460 , I did not believe ...that...my mother in law woz like they say actualy earning money in their spare time from their computer. . there aunt started doing this for under thirteen months and recently cleard the depts on there mini mansion and bourt a great Aston Martin DB5 . go to this website...

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  33. My larger question and concern around self-driving cars is what prevents criminals (including terrorists) from overriding the system and rigging it to be operated without anyone in the car to inflict harm and danger on others?

    If we have not planned for this; I highly suggest it needs to be addressed before releasing it to the public. Also, police and other emergency response personnel will need access to deactivate driverless cars used by criminals to impose harm.

    1. You might not mind driving a car for which someone else possesses an off switch, but I would.

  34. Anything that takes me out of the control loop, goes to the wrecking yard where it belongs. . . even though it should be a non-issue to begin with - no human control no operating on roads.

    If you want to pay out of your pocket for a special road . . . be my guest. Otherwise, fuck off.

    Fucking assclowns.

    1. They're already on the road so you had better just get used to the idea.

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  38. I would consider self-driving cars very attractive if they did not track our movements. Unfortunately, Tesla cars do track where they have gone, even the older ones that require humans to control them.

    Please join me in campaigning to require cars not to track and snoop. See http://gnu.org/philosophy/surv.....racy.html.

  39. There is an article on this topic by a libertarian-leaning writer on automotive issues, Eric Peters, with whose opinions I usually concur. In this case, I agree with his position that the 'driverless car' is a bad idea. Here is a link:


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  41. Devices/services like On-Star already have the ability to override operations to prevent starting the car or force it to slow down. Right now it's all, "if your car is stolen", technology, but add autonomous cars to the mix...

    Just how long do you think it will take before the government mandates the ability to remotely override operations of "robo-cars"? Then, next thing you know, after they've banned assault chippers, you get in your car to go to work and it locks the doors and takes you to the nearest police station instead.

    Also, hackers...

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