Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?

Source: The New York Times

Love was in the air at President-elect Donald J. Trump’s summit meeting last week with tech executives. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was really feeling it, coming as it did a day after the company announced that its self-driving technology was ready for commercialization. The meeting was a giant green light for an industry and the multitrillion-dollar investment it will represent, the cost largely to be borne by consumers and government.

Automobile, telecom, tech and e-commerce industries, and their marketers, have spent the last decade enabling the public’s addiction to wired living, working feverishly to bring the phone and the internet into the driving environment. And yet this trend has never been voted on or discussed seriously by our politicians. Even when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation brought industry leaders to Washington for hearings last spring, congressional interlocutors sought mainly to have their guests tell them how government could help usher in this new age of driverless technology. The assumption was: game on.

In the glorious future, we are assured that driverless cars will save lives, reduce accidents, ease congestion, curb energy consumption and lower harmful emissions. These purported benefits contain elements of truth. But the data is nowhere near complete. Even stipulating that all the claimed benefits will one day materialize, the near- and midterm picture from a public-interest perspective is not the same favorable one that industry sees. Legitimate areas of question and concern remain.

Take, for instance, the “safety” benefits of self-driving cars that include avoiding tens of thousands of highway deaths each year. The truth is, no one knows for sure how many lives could be saved by driverless cars, because data on the role of human error in crashes is incomplete and misleading, relying heavily on self-reporting. The types of accidents we’ll face in this automated future, in which these cars are meant to run together in proximity at high speed, may be fewer, but they’ll be new, different, unpredictable and, on occasion, larger and more grisly than the ones we know today. When 1,700 people leave the New Jersey Turnpike at more or less the same moment, all headed for the same parking spot near the food court at the Vince Lombardi rest area, you don’t want to be there.

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