A panel at the Davos conference has apparently convinced Felix Salmon that self-driving cars are the future. He even thinks these may even be better than rail, which has been high on every planner's list of ways to improve the world.
So what makes self-driving cars so terrific?
Right now, technology is arguably making roads and cars more dangerous. Drivers are notoriously bad judges of their own driving ability, and they're increasingly being distracted by devices — not just text messages, any more, but fully-fledged emails, social-media alerts, and even videos. What's more, when car manufacturers roll out things like stay-in-lane technology, that just makes drivers feel even safer, so they feel as though they have some kind of permission to spend even more time on their phones, and less time paying attention to the highway. The results can be disastrous.
But once we make it all the way into a platoon, or in a self-driving car, then at that point we become significantly safer than even the safest human driver. While we're very bad judges of our own driving ability, we're actually incredibly good at intuiting how safe our driver is when we're a passenger. And the experience of people in self-driving cars is that after no more than about 10 minutes, they relax, feel very safe, and are very happy letting the car take them where they want to go. They even relax so much, I'm told, that they lose the desire to speed — maybe because they know that they're getting where they're going, and in the meantime can lose themselves in their phones.
I have some sympathy with this point of view because I'm a non-driver. I ride in lots of cars but rarely drive them myself. Driving prevents me from doing too many of the things I like to do—such as reading, talking on the phone, and writing. Driving even interferes with life when you aren't behind the wheel—you cannot, for instance, safely enjoy a few glasses of wine with dinner if you plan on driving afterwards.
This does not, however, make me a fan of self-driving cars. The danger lurking in the self-driving car is that the driver—really, a computer programmer who you'll never meet—has no skin in the game. He won't be harmed by his errors, at least not physically. Unlike a taxi cab driver, his safety is not dependent on your safety. This is a recipe for accidents.
I won't ride in a self-driving car so long as I can avoid it.
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