It Could Happen - Universally Autonomous Cars Could Fail in the Marketplace

| Particle Debris

Companies that must employ drivers and pay them, even without customary benefits, would like to replace them with computers that can drive autonomously. This makes such vehicles candidates for taxis, buses, and trucks. But what about customers who actually enjoy being in control of a car that they own? Is that an enduring or dying part of American culture? Let's look at some issues.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about autonomous car technology. We've seen a lot of testing going on, and there's a certain amount of buzz about the technology because it just seems so cool. See: "Self-driving Chevy Bolt arrives in San Francisco." However, there are many questions to be asked and cultural issues that come into play.

The most obvious implementation is the area of replacing human drivers by taxi companies like Didi, Lyft and Uber as well as bus and trucking lines. That seems like a callous thing to do, but it has substantial advantages. Drivers who are responsible for the lives of others occasionally make fatal mistakes. Drug testing and background checks would be eliminated.

When it comes to mind-numbing, stop-and-go daily commutes of more than 20 or 30 minutes, customers would probably rather be drinking coffee and reading or teleconferencing than staring at the back of other cars that constantly cut in front or jockey for position.

On the other hand, for people who live in the wide-open spaces of the American west and south, the tradition of freedom and control that comes from driving a high-performance car won't go away soon. That's why many (hundreds of?) millions of viewers have enjoyed Top Gear over the years, subscribe to car magazines, fantasize about supercars, and will keep watching Clarkson, May and Hammond on Amazon's @thegrandtour this fall.

Insurance Issues

And then there's the issue of insurance. This is being looked at by the insurance companies. There is no doubt that car accidents and injures are caused by human error. For now, various technologies are being implemented to reduce the cause with lane-change warnings, radar-managed emergency braking, infrared heads-up night vision, and so on. Ultimately, however, the industry has to figure out how to insure the motorist for new environments.

To be sure, property damage (flood, hail, etc) and theft insurance will remain. But when the autonomous cars make a mistake, and they will, the insurance industry will need to work with the manufacturers to balance risk and costs. The reduction in costs due to the elimination of human error and consequent pay-outs could offset the absorption of some liability by the maker. That is, if regulation requires self-monitoring, logging, and a legal way to establish the source of the car's error.

This sensible and comprehensive article is worth a look. "Self-Driving Cars and Insurance" not because it has all the answers but because it raises the right questions.

Why Do We Have Time? So Everything Doesn't Happen at Once

(That was Albert Einstein, BTW). I foresee a gradual transition. An emerging technology period of pre-autonomous smartcars could reduce accidents by quite a bit, but leave the driver in control for pleasure driving or emergencies. Meanwhile, fully-autonomous vehicles will be used by the kinds of companies I mentioned at the top.

Also, the emergence of crowd-sourcing, supercomputers in our pockets, the cloud, augmented reality, and the now technical feasibility of passenger drones could foster unforeseen, serendipitous solutions, and take us down a different road.

It remains to be seen if the car buying public will adopt, in a wholesale fashion, the idea of owning a car that has no controls and cannot be used to, as Chevy has said, "See the U.S.A." There will likely be a mixed environment for a long time to come. Many will just want to fire up their iPhone app and get a pre-programmed ride. Others will still want to take charge (of a much safer, personally owned smartcar) and be on their way to the ski slopes.

It's hard, right now, to predict a highly monolithic vision. There are lots of diffrent people with differing needs and affections. The fully autonomous car won't descend on us in totality, and that's something all the car companies will have to deal with, including, presumably, Apple.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of May 16th. The inevitable technical trade-offs our culture makes.

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One aspect of the autonomous car question is generational. I’ve heard from many sources, including parents and talking with people in their late teens and twenties, that there is a decided lack of interest in driving among younger people. It seems that after being ferried around all of their lives a good proportion of the next generation of adults have little interest in driving themselves. They will be a very receptive market for cars that do for them what their parents did for them when they were kids.


quick take: ‘they’ legislated a previous form of (semi) autonomous vehicle off the road-that being the horse. Then have slowly been cookin’ the ICE car paradigm for the last 100 years…seatbelts….mandatory ABS and traction control…now mandatory “autonomous” braking is happening. It seems to be happening incrementally and like everything ‘new’ you can’t stop it. Millennials I suspect aren’t as locked in to car ownership and old paradigms as much as older generations are and how long are we of this earth? Meanwhile autonomous and non autonomous will work side by side until it will be obvious that not having to worry about driving is the better way. Driving will be like horse riding someday, a weekend sport.
    Or not.


I know I don’t want one, and while it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they appealed to millennial’s laziness, I don’t know if that would be enough: though they are touted as the largest up and coming generation in the workforce, according to statistical information, they are actually the minority age group of the collective population. In other words, there actually are more of us than them.

Another thing no one seems to want to address - the massive infrastructure needed. The majority of the country is not a perfectly laid out metropolitan city like San Francisco or even Austin. Given that we don’t seem to want to pay for the infrastructure we already have, I don’t see that happening, particularly if it would further harm local economies.


Agreed. I’ve argued for a couple of years now that autonomous cars will be an evolutionary, not revolutionary change. First we got AL Brakes. Then lane wander warnings and then cars that will autocorrect if you drift or get too close. Then self parking cars. There’s a number of companies already working on autonimous driving for big rigs. Interstates are simpler to deal with than cities. Slowly a step at a time cars will take care of themselves and we will stop having to drive ourselves. Eventually there will be extra premiums for people who insist on driving themselves. A premium that I’ll probably pay. Not because I particularly want to keep driving, but because I’m too cheap to replace my 2005 Prius.

I expect this to happen in Aviation too. . I see a time when pilots and air traffic controllers will both be out of a job. Already much of the military flying has been turned over to drones. Soon, if not already, they will just be told to take off, go to point X and shoot the white car.


Speaking of aviation - ever wonder why Pilots aren’t filmed in the cockpit as another “channel” recorded to the black boxes? My busdriver, taxi guy are filmed… why not pilots? Nice Union, ey?
Big rigs platooning autonomously is happening - think train.


“Already much of the military flying has been turned over to drones.”

Unless things have changed very recently, those drones are remotely piloted so they can’t be lumped under the “autonomous” vehicle category.


Actually military flying has changed rapidly. Already a high proportion of manned bombing missions are done by cruise missiles, which use terrane avoidance and preprogrammed logic to complete their <albeit one way> mission. It’s not too far away that we will be able to send drones out on similar missions, only have them drop the bomb and return. That’s already being worked on.
Dara also has a program for developing fully autonomous drones.

Lee Dronick

  Speaking of aviation - ever wonder why Pilots aren’t filmed in the cockpit as another “channel” recorded to the black boxes? My busdriver, taxi guy are filmed… why not pilots?

And live tracking of aircraft via satellite communication, especially for flights over the oceans and other places where there is no radar coverage. Sure it would cost money to install the equipment and infrastructure, but how much money do we spend on searching for blackboxes?

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