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Would we ever ban human driving?

I often see the suggestion that as Robocars get better, eventually humans will be forbidden from driving, or strongly discouraged through taxes or high insurance charges. Many people think that might happen fairly soon.

It’s easy to see why, as human drivers kill 1.2 million people around the world every year, and injure many millions more. If we get a technology that does much better, would we not want to forbid the crazy risk of driving? It is one of the most dangerous things we commonly do, perhaps only second to smoking.

Even if this is going to happen, it won’t happen soon. While my own personal prediction is that robocars will gain market share very quickly — more like the iPhone than like traditional automotive technologies — there will still be lots of old-style cars around for many decades to come, and lots of old-style people. History shows we’re very reluctant to forbid old technologies. Instead we grandfather in the old technologies. You can still drive the cars of long ago, if you have one, even though they are horribly unsafe death traps by today’s standards, and gross polluters as well. Society is comfortable that as market forces cause the numbers of old vehicles to dwindle, this is sufficient to attain the social goals.

There are occasional exceptions, though usually only if they are easy to do. You do have to install seatbelts in a classic car that doesn’t have them, as well as turn signals and the other trappings of being street legal.

While I often talk about the horrible death toll, and how bad human drivers are, the reality is that this is an aggregation over a lot of people. A very large number of people will never have an accident in their lives, let alone one with major injuries or death. That’s a good thing! The average person probably drives around 600,000 miles in a lifetime in the USA. There is an accident for every 250,000 miles, but these are not evenly distributed. Some people have 4 or 5 accidents, and many have none.

As such, forbidding driving would be a presumption of guilt where most are innocent, and tough call from a political standpoint.

That doesn’t mean other factors won’t strongly discourage driving. You’ll still need a licence after all, and that licence might get harder and harder to get. The USA is one of the most lax places in the world. Many other countries have much more stringent driving tests. The ready availability of robotaxis will mean that many people just never go through the hassle of getting a licence, seeing no great need. Old people, who currently fight efforts to take away their licences, will not have the need to fight so hard.

Insurance goes down, not up

You will also need insurance. Today we pay about 6 cents/mile on average for insurance. Those riding in safe robocars might find that cost down to a penny/mile, which would be a huge win. But the cost for those who insist to drive is not going to go up because of robocars, unless you believe the highly unlikely proposition that the dwindling number of humans will cause more or deadlier accidents per person in the future. People tolerate that 6 cent/mile cost today, and they’ll tolerate it in the future if they want to. The cost will probably even drop a bit, because human driven cars will have robocar technologies and better passive safety (crumple zones) that make them much safer, even with a human at the wheel. Indeed, we may see many cars which are human driven but “very hard” to crash by mistake.

The relative cost of insurance will be higher, which may dissuade some folks. If you are told, “This trip will cost $6 if you ride, and $8 if you insist on driving” you might decide not to drive because 33% more cost seems ridiculous — even though today you are paying more for that cost on an absolute scale.

Highly congested cities will take steps against car ownership, and possibly driving. In Singapore, for example, you can’t have a car unless you buy a very expensive certificate at auction — these certificates cost as much as $100,000 for ten years. You have to really want a private car in Singapore, but still many people do.

Governments won’t have a great incentive to forbid driving but they might see it as a way to reduce congestion. Once robocars are packing themselves more tightly on the roads, they will want to give the human driven cars a wider berth, because they are less predictable. As such, the human driver takes up more road space. They also do more irrational things (like slow down to look at an accident.) One can imagine charges placed on human drivers for the extra road congestion they cause, and that might take people out of the driver’s seat.

The all-robocar lane tricks

There are certain functions which only work or only work well if all cars are robocars. They will be attractive, to be sure, but will they surpass the pressure from the human lobby?

  • It’s possible to build dynamic intersections without traffic lights or bridges if all cars are trusted robocars.
  • It’s possible to build low-use roads that are just two strips of concrete (like rails) if only robocars go on them, which is much cheaper.
  • It’s possible to safety redirect individual lanes on roads, without need for barriers, if all cars in the boundary lanes are robocars. Humans can still drive in the non-boundary lanes pretty safely.
  • We can probably cut congestion a lot in the all-robocar world, but we still cut it plenty as penetration increases over time.

These are nice, but really only a few really good things depend on the all-robocar world. Which is a good thing, because we would never get the cars if the benefits required universal adoption.

But don’t have an accident…

All of this is for ordinary drivers who are free of accidents and tickets. This might all change if you have an accident or get lots of tickets. Just as you can lose you licence to a DUI, I can foresee a system where people lose their licence on their first accident, or certainly on their second. Or their first DUI or certain major tickets. In that world, people will actually drive with much more caution, having their licence at stake for any serious mistake. A teen who causes an accident may find they have to wait several years to re-try getting a licence. It’s also possible that governments would raise the driving age to 18 or 21 to get people past the reckless part of their lives, but that this would not be a burden in a robocar world, with teens who are not even really aware of what they are missing.

I’ve driven over 35 years and had no accidents. I’ve gotten 2 minor speeding tickets, back in the 80s — though I actually speed quite commonly, like everybody else. It seems unlikely there would be cause to forbid me to drive, even in a mostly robocar world. Should I wish it. I don’t actually wish it, not on city streets. I still will enjoy driving on certain roads I would consider “fun to drive” in the mountains or by the coast. It’s also fun to go to a track and go beyond even today’s street rules. I don’t see that going away.