Self-driving cars are a technology that has been on the horizon for a while now. Admittedly, I thought we would have them by now, but it seems that the process of driving is much more complicated than we thought. That coupled with the fact that they can’t just be equivalent to us at driving, they must be much better. It’s hard to roll out a technology that you have to say “yea, this is going to kill thousands of people a year,” even if we kill millions driving. So, while we wait for them to really get everything fine-tuned, I thought I’d take the time to go over the pros and cons of self-driving cars.
A bit of a quick disclaimer first though. As with all speculation these things may come to pass or may not. I’m not an expert on automation, or economics, but i’ll try to explain my reasoning as well as I can. If you disagree, by all means leave a comment and I’ll take your point of view into consideration.
The Pros of Self-Driving Cars
Starting with the pros makes the most sense to me when talking about new technology. After all, why are we developing this technology in the first place? What do you have to gain? By far the most noticeable change in everyday life will be…
The recovered leisure time.
Traffic SUUUUUUUCKS. It literally sucks precious time from almost everybody, almost every day. Lives are lost in traffic! Sometimes individually, always collectively. The collective amount of human lifetime that traffic costs us every day is horrifying. Years, decades, lifetimes. For an individual traffic is slightly to severely annoying, but for society it’s a huge problem.
A large-scale use of self-driving cars would alleviate traffic because there would be less reaction delay. (The thing that causes the “stop and go” in stop and go traffic.) But, even if it didn’t the passengers of self-driving cars would be free to do what they wanted. Do makeup, text, surf the web, SLEEP. Really whatever so long as you can do it in a car.
This extra leisure time, coupled with not having to stress driving, would relax everyone universally, and increase productivity for those who want to work in the car.
Increased traffic efficiency
There have been some claims that dispute this when autonomous and human driven vehicles are mixed together, but with an entirely autonomous car fleet it’s undeniable. Our traffic infrastructure is pretty much roads, and things to keep us from crashing into each other. It works really well all things considered.
Self-driving cars shouldn’t need the latter though. Instead of signs and lines and rules to try and figure out what each car is going to do, a self-driving car will know what the others are doing.
They should be able to interface with each other, and flow like water through the city. An obstacle seen by one car would be seen by every car, and they could adjust miles down the road. We wouldn’t need stoplights so long as all the cars coordinate to not crash into each other. This would be easier than you think, because cars wouldn’t be grouped into chunks of traffic by said traffic lights, like they are now.
It goes without saying that self-driving cars would be safer. They need to be in order to be implemented. It’s probably the limiting factor keeping them from rolling out, but I have a sneaking feeling that they already are. I would bet that the prototype autonomous cars being developed now are better than us. Still, because of the liability on the companies developing them better than us isn’t good enough.
They need to be nearly perfect. Once they are, they won’t have any of the lapses in concentration we have. They will have a vastly superior grasp of their surrounding (with, or without LIDAR.)
If you really think about it, humans have two front facing cameras and two microphones, and we manage to drive okay. Autonomous cars will have way more sensors in a 360-degree field around the vehicle, all as attentive on hour 10 as hour two.
There will be a transition period where everyone must let go of control and trust the vehicle. This will be hard for some. We have a morbid misconception that people that get into car wrecks are themselves to blame and it could never happen to us.
This feeling of control gives us a false sense of security while driving. It’s also why lots of people fear plane crashes more than car crashes. You’re way more likely to die in your car than on a plane, but you have no control over a plane which makes people anxious.
Self-driving cars will be safer, but the transition will still be a nerve-wracking one. It will take time for the cars to gain our trust.
Less reliance on a vehicle
Self-driving cars have the benefit of being more suitable as a service than a product. Companies like Uber and Lyft will have huge fleets of them. If you own an autonomous vehicle there will probably be a service to rent it out when you don’t need it. Kind of like a Carbnb.
This also means that many people will just choose to not have a car. Owning a vehicle is expensive considering how much we use them. Inversely Uber is cheap and convenient now, but it will be even more so with self-driving cars. Transportation will transition more to a service, which is nice because it’ll be cheaper for everyone, especially for those with lower incomes in urban areas.
A lot of people are stuck in poor communities because they can’t afford a vehicle to get to better work outside said community. Buying a vehicle can also be a double edge sword because now you shoulder a lot of expenses. It’s a bad situation to be in, but it’s one we can solve with autonomous cars.
More than just people will get where they need to go. If we can make self-driving cars, we’ll also make self-driving pickups, big rigs, tankers, cargo ships. In a lot of ways these may be easier. This also eliminates all the restrictions of needing drivers.
Cargo trucks could run 24/7 without having to pay a driver. (I talk about the downsides to his down below.) This makes those Amazon packages cheaper and faster. Honestly, everything needs to be transported so everything would get cheaper and faster.
This effect is HUGE because it affects everything. It’s honestly why I’m surprised more resources haven’t been poured into autonomy developments. It could boost the economy by TRILLIONS. The owners of autonomous supply chain companies will be very rich people. (Keep an eye out for public stock offerings… don’t take that too seriously I’m not an economist.)
The Cons Of Self-driving Cars
Alright it’s time to discuss the cons in “the pros and cons of self-driving cars.” There are less of them, and they’re outweighed by the pros, BUT that doesn’t mean they’re not very important. We should know what to expect, and to those effected it can be devastating, so we should take them very seriously.
As with all computers, autonomous vehicles can get hacked. This leaves a large portion of our infrastructure vulnerable to cyber-terrorism or data theft. As the world progresses further into the informational age, cyber-crime will become a much bigger problem. More so if that cyber-crime can now drive real vehicles into buildings.
This is a very extreme example. Ideally, we will have INCREDIBLY STRICT cybersecurity protocols with multiple layers of redundancy and proper separation. This would allow any breach to be contained and isolated. The systems would have to be built like this from the ground up. It would be a constant battle of cat and mouse we would have to fight as the leverage over infrastructure would be massive.
A data breach to steal personal data would be less insidious but also more likely. All online services share this risk, but it would add another facet of our lives that could be breached. Such is life in the informational age.
Greater Influence of Transportation Companies.
Bad actors aren’t the only people that may be cause for concern. A world where we increasingly rely on services like Uber would give them a massive influence over our lives. Getting kicked off Twitter is annoying but getting kicked off Uber if it’s your primary source of transportation could ruin your life.
As private companies they can define their own terms of service. It could allow them to enforce a type of technological compliance to dictate people’s behavior. This is the risk we run relying further on private services. We lose some autonomy as our cars gain it. It also gives them a ton more data on us, even if it’s dwarfed by our phones.
This is a big one. Not having to pay a truck driver is great for the company and consumer, but this is where automation really bears its teeth. That’s a real, very tangible loss of jobs. Millions of jobs, that will disappear very quickly.
The standard argument “as technology replaces jobs it creates new, better ones” is commonly used here. I don’t think this argument holds water in this case. Autonomous vehicles will not create jobs. Generally, the job creation is a result of needing to create new infrastructure and services for said technology. Cars needed new roads, mechanics, and gas stations.
Autonomous vehicles aren’t creating new industries, they’re supplanting an existing one. Most of our infrastructure can stay the same, and it only takes one person to program millions of vehicles. This leaves a ton of people out in the cold.
Unfortunately, the people it hurts most are the people most vulnerable. Low-income working-class people. New jobs will be created by new technology, but slowly. The job loss will be fast. Also, the people who get those new technological jobs are not the same people as who lost theirs. This leads to the last con of self-driving cars.
Greater income inequality
The net effect on the economy will be positive, but that effect won’t be shared evenly. Technology at a fundamental level allows its owner to get greater output for an equal or lesser input.
This is how we’ve created all the plenty that we enjoy. Still it only gives that greater output to its owner. This means that all technologies universally contribute to income inequality. Whoever owns the technology reaps the benefits.
For Autonomous vehicles this will be incredibly pronounced, as programmers and executives make fortunes while millions of drivers lose their jobs.
This income divide will be one of the greatest problems of this generation. Still not all is lost. Every technology also increases the net output, so the pie is bigger in total and living standards rise. We just have to figure out a way to distribute the wealth.
Finding a palatable solution is not easy though. There are a lot of very strong feelings about wealth distribution and government policy which I’m not going to touch.
I will leave you with this though, wealth inequality is a fundamental property of advancing technology. Technology will advance, and if nothing is done so will inequality. We can solve this problem. We just need to recognize it as a problem.
I’m pretty sure there are lots of other pros and cons of Self-driving cars that I may have missed so leave a comment if you think of any. It’ll be interesting to see who releases rolls out their fully autonomous car first. I’ve got my money on Tesla but that’s only because it’s the only car on the road right now. Who knows what the competition has brewing behind closed doors.
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