Driverless vehicles are all the rage all over the Internet. In October, Tesla announced an autopilot feature which, in addition to providing some useful driver assistance features, will also allow the car to park itself when on private property. Mercedes has had similar driver assistance features for some time. Of course, Google is famous for experimenting with fully autonomous cars for years and have been improving the technology steadily. I have every confidence in the engineering. The capability to make a reliable autonomous vehicle is nearly upon us and is a very reachable goal. However, that is not the determining factor in them becoming commonplace on the roads.
The proponents for autonomous cars largely come from the technologically sophisticated left. There are some significant potential efficiency and safety gains to be had from self-driving vehicles. The driver is the most unreliable part of a car. Driver behavior has a large impact on energy usage as well. Up to this point, there has not been much in the way of vocal opposition to driverless cars. There are concerns, yes. Perhaps they will make traffic worse. There are potential ethical dilemmas. But these are not serious impediments to adoption. The serious impediment to the adoption of autonomous cars is the state.
Some of the things being touted as benefits of autonomous cars are threats to some parties. Let’s look at safety. Assume an autonomous car obeys all traffic laws. What does that do to various governments who depend on ticketing revenue? Driving irregularities are a leading reason for traffic stops which allow for the detection of drug trafficking, which is another major source of revenue for local police departments. Will police departments and municipalities be onboard for technology which will potentially eliminate the majority of their revenues? I think not.
Assuming the limited testing of computer controlled cars is promising, what are likely reactions from governments? If a driverless car is really safer and more efficient, how long before anything else is banned? Look at technologies such as airbags and backup cameras. These things went from high-end features to mandatory ones within 3 car generations. How long before something which could save considerably more lives would be similarly mandated? And that would spark outrage among both car enthusiasts and the automakers who cater to those enthusiasts. Those are moneyed interests whose influence should not be underestimated.
I do not expect these reasons to be the explicit cases for banning or at least slowing the adoption of autonomous vehicles. They are too cynical to be digested by the public. There will be other reasons given. I’m sure many factions are chomping at the bit for the first fatality which is caused or at least exacerbated by some sort of failure or design flaw in an autonomous car. When that happens, it will be put to maximum use by political interests who have had to largely remain silent due to their somewhat unsavory motivations. I expect us to have autonomous vehicles. But not without a fight, and not when the technology is ready. Perhaps a generation after the technology is readily available, the political climate will have sufficiently changed to allow them to become commonplace, but I don’t expect them to be common on American roads for at least 20 years after we have fully operational, reliable, cost-effective prototypes. The state will probably not allow it to happen any sooner than that.