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Leave the Driving to It

How would lives and landscapes change if every car had a computer in the driver’s seat?

Brian Hayes

Keep on Truckin’

One group who will not be keen on driverless vehicles are those who drive for a living. Roughly four million people in the United States work as drivers of cars, buses and trucks—about 2½ percent of the workforce. If autonomous vehicles become commonplace, all of those jobs are in jeopardy. That’s a major economic disruption.

Cost incentives might well lead long-haul trucking companies to become early adopters of driverless technology. Even if computer control were to double or triple the initial cost of the vehicle, this capital expenditure would still be far less than total payments to drivers. And a driverless truck does not have to stop for meals or sleep, or for anything other than fuel. Whereas a coast-to-coast trip with a solo human driver takes four days (obeying speed limits and regulations on hours of work), an automated truck could cover the same route in two days.

Taxi service presents similar issues. Eliminating the driver would dramatically lower costs for both the operator and the customer. (Presumably, the computer would not even expect a tip.)

Apart from professional drivers, other constituencies might also resist and resent autonomous vehicles. Car enthusiasts are an example: What’s the point of owning a Ferrari if only the computer gets to drive it? Pedestrians and bicyclists would also be displaced if some roads were open only to automated vehicles.

Meanwhile, driverless technology would surely be welcomed by another large group: people who cannot drive because of age or disability. An interesting subcategory is children, who are often dependent on their parents for transportation. Suppose we had a safe and reliable car that could be programmed to drive to any destination. Would we feel comfortable loading the kids into the back seat and sending them off to grandpop’s house unaccompanied? I put this question to the parents of my own grandchildren (ages 5 to 12). The answer was no—and the children concurred. So it appears the self-driving car will not bring the liberation of the soccer mom.

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