13 June 2011

Driverless cars

I was talking last night after dinner* with some guys in my CS program about driverless cars. My friend asked me when they'd be ready and said he thought 10 or 15 years should do it. I told him 10 or 15 years to get past the technical problems, but an unknowable amount of time to get them past the social and legal problems.

We decided there were two things you ought to do to get people ready to buy self-driving cars.

First, don't try to sell people a car with a big red autopilot switch on the dash. Ease people in to it a feature at a time. We've already got things like self-parking and increasing intelligent cruise control that can do things like follow but avoid the car in front of you. Keep adding features to those sets until the car is doing most of the driving for you, with your assistance, and then people will be more willing to turn over control more fully.

Secondly, people are really bad at assessing risk.** They will demand that automated vehicles be "safe" period. But insurance companies are smart enough to only demand that automated vehicles be safer than human-driven vehicles.  You can convince an actuary that something is safe with facts and demonstrations and numbers.  Such methods don't work on normal people.

Consider this:
One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.
People demand nuclear plants and oil platforms and airplanes to be safe period. But they only demand coal plants and mines and wind turbines and highways and organic farms to be safe enough. Insurance companies are the lever to use to try and shift automated vehicles from the "needs to be safe" to "needs to be safe enough" category because their incentives are in the right place.  The marginal driver who does not want to turn over some (more) control of their vehicle to a computer will think twice if GEICO will charge them $200 less if they do so.

* Side note: I need a meat grinder. The burgers we had were great, I think because my buddy ground his own beef.

** See, for instance, the unfounded brouhaha about Toyota's "sudden acceleration" that turned out, predictably, to be nothing but PEBKAC.

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