Self-Driving Cars Can't Come Soon Enough

So how long will it be before this whole "driving ourselves around in cars" thing is done with? Atrios predicts that "a whole lot of public money will be spent setting up a 'driverless car' system that will never actually work." Kevin Drum is much more optimistic — he predicts that "There will be a transition period that's likely to be messy—though probably no messier than today's all-human traffic nightmare—but eventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour."

I'm with Kevin on this — technologically speaking, the ability for cars to drive themselves is coming really soon (see this recent article in Wired for a primer). Yes, it will be difficult to get to the fully automated system where the cars speak to the roads and to each other, but between here and there, there are many incremental steps that can and will be taken to get judgment out of human hands. The transition won't be because technology is inadequate, but because it'll take time for the old dumb cars to wear out and be taken off the road. High-end cars already park themselves and override you in tricky traffic situations, and they're getting better every year. But I'd like to emphasize Kevin's point: people suck at driving. Not you, of course—you're a great driver! But as a group, we're just not up to it. Let's look at some data from the Transportation Department.

In 2009, the last year for which they appear to have data, there were 30,797 fatal car accidents in the United States. These crashes killed 24,474 vehicle occupants, 4,462 motorcyclists, 4,092 pedestrians, 630 bicycle riders, and 150 "unknown" people, for a total of 33,808 vehicle crash deaths. In other words, that's about a September 11 every month or so on our roads.

The good news is that these numbers have declined in the last couple of years—total deaths were over 43,000 in 2005. But they're still incredibly high. And think about it: do you know anyone who was killed or seriously injured in a car accident? I'll bet you do. The autonomous cars can't get here soon enough.

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