The Fuse

America has been Ready for Self-driving Cars Since the Days of the Horse and Buggy

March 09, 2016

Guest Post by Robert W. Peterson |

Robert W. Peterson is a professor at the University of Santa Clara School of Law.

Are Americans ready for autonomous cars? They have been ready for more than a century.

The horses that pulled buggies were autonomous, capable of finding their way home with little or no help from their drivers. So, autonomous travel is nothing new. It’s just better.

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the number of vehicles increased, the rate of deaths and injuries caused by vehicular accidents likewise jumped. Although modern technology and safer construction has helped decrease the number of fatal crashes in recent decades, the numbers remain staggering.

In the U.S. alone, vehicular accidents have killed more than 32,000 people annually for the past five years for which data is available. That’s as if five 737 jets crashed every week. It is more than double the number of people who have died worldwide in the recent Ebola epidemic.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that between 93 percent and 95 percent of these accidents are caused by human error.

In addition to deaths, vehicle accidents send about 2.5 million people per year to emergency rooms. The NHTSA estimates the U.S. economic and social costs of vehicle accidents, excluding the cost of car ownership, at $871 billion a year.

Take a simple test. In your local newspaper, carefully read each account of a person killed or injured by vehicles. Then ask, would this tragedy have been avoided, or the injury mitigated, if one or more of the vehicles had been self-driving?

We tolerate this carnage because cars bring great utility and freedom. Self-driving vehicles deliver even greater utility by freeing driving time for other things — be it texting, working or just relaxing.

Self-driving cars also deliver huge benefits to the disabled and the elderly who would otherwise lose their licenses. At the same time, self-driving cars remove much of the human error that contributes to the vast majority of injuries and deaths.

Self-driving cars also deliver a number of broader social utilities. These range from far more efficient use of our present land and infrastructure to more overall productive lives.

Americans have dreamed of driverless, horseless carriages since the ’30s, but their advent had to await the development of cheap and convenient computing power. Let’s look at a few interesting facts.

Young people today seem far less enamored with driving than in the recent past. If they license at all, many license much later and drive fewer miles. Rather than driving to see friends, they may opt to text or call. Smartphones rather than cars may be today’s status symbol.

In addition, car ownership is a major expense. Using fleets of on-call vehicles saves not only the cost of a depreciating asset that spends 95 percent of its time idle, but also saves on the other major cost of a car: Insurance.

When polled about self-driving cars, potential customers cite higher safety and lower insurance costs as the two most persuasive factors.

Indeed, in many respects, self-driving cars are already here. You may be followed by one. Some of the most recent safety improvements will virtually drive the car. Adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, traffic jam and parking assist are just the most recent developments in a clear trajectory toward self-driving cars.

Of course, self-driving cars will not create utopia. There will still be some accidents, although far fewer. There will be some people who will never give up their cars. There will be some who live in areas difficult to serve with self-driving cars.

Some regulators may stall because they fear criticism after the first unfortunate fatality. And there will be some who will argue self-driving cars are unsafe because they see them as a threat to their business. One can hardly expect emergency rooms and funeral parlors to argue they need more business.

Self-driving cars offer such a wealth of advantages that it makes little difference whether Americans are ready. Americans need to get ready. Just look in the mirror.