Driverless cars – no rush, no worries

My buddy DW jumps on the driverless car meme:

Everyone’s fired up again. This time, however, the debate is moving in a direction that I can relate to. Here’ Megan McArdle (who has obviously been catching up on my blog archive):

Now I’m gloomy again.

Why? Not because of the technology. And not because of the regulation.  But because of the liability.  Self-driving cars represent a massive one–one that I’m not sure companies will take on.

Now, luckily, as many others are observing, a crazy tort system is somewhat unique here in the US and driverless cars need not multiply in the land of their birth.

My guess would be that promising-but-scary technology is more likely to be pioneered in a poorer country, since as people get wealthier they tend to become more risk averse and prioritize safety. But if something proves really useful and basically safe in some subset of countries, the pressure to change the rules elsewhere should become intense.

Good luck to Singapore or wherever but tweak US tort law? It is hard to describe how immense a task that is.

I’m not worried about the liability issue at all.

First, the technology will not emerge full-born onto all aspects of driving simultaneously. The first step will be adjustable cruise control, where the car automatically adjusts its speed according to what it sees in front of it. That’s coming soon, or maybe it’s already here and I missed it.

Megan McArdle envisions a later problem: a driverless car wandering a leafy suburb and failing to recognize that when a big red ball bounces into the street, a toddler is bound to follow.

But that is one of the last pieces of the technology we’ll see. And she envisions it going on the road when it doesn’t work properly. Why on earth would that happen? Does she think her scenario hasn’t occurred to – oh – every single person who contemplates a driverless car?

It may help to consider how big a blind spot Megan has constructed.

  • She assumes the scientists working on the project haven’t thought of her scenario.
  • She assumes the managers of the project haven’t thought of it.
  • She assumes Google’s risk management team hasn’t thought of it.
  • She assumes Google’s insurers haven’t thought of it.
  • She assumes Google’s CEO hasn’t thought of it.
  • She assumes that Google’s investors haven’t thought of it.
  • She assumes that not a single regulator involved in licensing vehicles has thought of it.

This is the Smart Man Trap, and Megan has fallen into it. Because Megan is bright, she thinks of things that most people don’t. Therefore, she assumes she has thought of something that no one else has. That’s the trap – being smarter than every individual doesn’t mean you are smarter than the collected wisdom of all those individuals.

More likely liability issues would emerge from a chain of, say, 100 cars that cruise off the interstate and into, say, a shopping center. Lots of dead people and significant property damage. However, that loss is akin to the crash of a jetliner – tragic, yes, but insurable.

And I bet Google has a plan to deal with that, likely involving disclaimers, insurance and lobbyists.


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