Driverless Cars May Avoid Accidents, But Not Headlines

As Deven Desai points out yesterday, driverless cars could bring a variety of benefits.  For instance: driverless cars may be much safer than human drivers.  Human error accounts for an enormous percentage of driving fatalities, which number in the tens of thousands. In a “perfect,” post-driver world, the circle of fatalities caused by vehicles would simply shrink.  The resulting diagram would look something like this:

But in reality, driverless cars are likely to create new kinds of accidents, even as they dramatically reduce accidents overall.  Thus, the real diagram is more likely to look something like this:
The addition of even a tiny new area could have outsized repercussions. A robot may always be better than a human driver at avoiding at a shopping cart.  And it may always be better at avoiding a stroller.  But what happens when a robot confronts a shopping cart and a stroller at the same time?  You or I would plow right into a shopping cart—or even a wall—to avoid hitting a stroller.  A driverless car might not.  The first headline, meanwhile, to read “Robot Car Kills Baby To Avoid Groceries” could end autonomous driving in the United States—and, ironically, drive fatalities back up.  This possibility will be hard for laws, insurance, or video clips to inoculate against.  (Thanks to Dan Siciliano for the idea of using a Venn diagram to illustrate this point.)

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3 Responses

  1. mls says:

    The obvious solution is robot voters.

  2. Martin del Mazo says:

    There is a work around. If the cost of self guided technologies drops far enough we could potentially have robot controled strollers and shopping carts. Perhaps we could consolidate the two carts and vagrants, who seem to have cornered the use of the highway going shopping cart, could earn extra money babysitting without fear of traffic accidents. This would also give the homeless someone to talk to throughout the day.

  3. Ron Miller says:

    There will be some accidents that would not have occurred if there was a human driver. You are right. But I think society will tolerate this if the overall number of traffic accidents and, more importantly, fatalities, goes down.