Waymo goes totally unmanned, arbitration and other news


One of the biggest milestones of the robocar world has gotten just a little coverage. Waymo, which last year removed the safety driver from behind the wheel of their cars in Phoenix, still had a supervisor sitting in the back with a kill switch. That supervisor is now gone and the car comes to pick up passengers entirely unmanned.

Phoenix is, of course, one of the easiest places in the world to drive, which is a natural choice for a first step, but nobody can doubt that robocars are here now, even if not in their own town. Waymo's and Alphabet's lawyers and board had to sign off on taking this risk, and they did, which means the team presented them with excellent evidence of safety.

It should be noted the cars are still subject to remote monitoring, and a remote operations center is there able to give the cars assistance when they encounter a situation they don't understand. That's a non-real-time situation though, since there will be too much latency to a data center to allow remote operators to reliably control the wheel and pedals directly, unless Waymo has built a special communications infrastructure, which I doubt.

Can your ride service demand arbitration

CNN Reports that the current proposed robocar legislation would allow a car or fleet operator to require that passengers waive their right to sue and instead submit to arbitration. This is pretty common in a lot of situations, and of course pedestrians and other cars on the road will not be waiving their right to sue. Should passengers be able to (or required to) waive that right?

The first reaction is no. We do want vendors of robots to be liable for what their robots do. In this case, however, they will still be liable, just not through the courts. Critics argue that arbitrators, who are often paid by the vendor and have a long term relationship with the vendor, are inherently biased, which may have some truth.

I believe in choice, and clauses like this are extremely common in many products, so it is not immediately clear that this technique should be barred from use in robocars. In fact, I think the greatest threat to the deployment of robocars is the potential for court damages that far exceed damages that would be awarded if a negligent human caused an accident, which seems unfair.

One answer might be to allow chioce. A passenger could elect whether they wish to agree to arbitration, or wish to retain the right to use the courts. But these choices would come at different prices. The prices would not be just "arbitrarily" set by the vendor, though. It would be required to track, over time, the real cost of resolving cases by either method, and using that ratio to set the prices. In effect, it would be insurance. No matter who pays the underwriter, insurance is always paid for, in the end, but the ultimate customer.

As such, the base cost of a ride might be 50 cents/mile. The cost for insurance to protect the passengers might be 2 cents/mile if the arbitration method is invoked, or 12 cents/mile if the right to sue is retained. But it would only have that ratio if damages in court cases were really six times higher on average than damages in arbitration cases.

The reality is that most passengers would select the arbitration method. But let the market decide.

Pay per passenger?

When we think about breaking out the cost of insurance in this way, it leads to the idea that robocar rides might well have to be priced based on the number of passengers. Of course, rides in buses, shared vans, UberPool and taxis in some countries are based on the number of passengers, but otherwise this does not happen. The cost of insurance against passenger injury is indeed higher with more passengers. There is a small extra energy cost for more passengers. The biggest cost difference would be that 1 passenger can be served by a tiny solo vehicle which is cheaper, while 3 passengers definitely need a more expensive car. But if you have 3 people you would know you need to demand a larger car, and you would expect to pay for that. The company might elect to send a large car to a solo passenger, or 2 cars to a group, but it would bear the cost of that.

In general, the extra costs per passenger should be quite low if the vehicle is the same, so I don't expect companies to want to complicate their pricing too much.

US Senate Bill

It should be noted that Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California where most of the robocar companies in the USA are based, has come out against the new bill that reduces regulations on robocars in the senate, even though most of the companies in her state want the bill and feel it's important to get their business going.

Without Dianne, the bill can't get bipartisan approval in the committee, and becomes harder to pass.

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