It’s all over for Google’s self-driving cars, the ill-considered experiment that literally crashed to a halt on Valentine’s Day when one of its robo-vehicles smashed into the side of a bus filled with dozens of innocent citizens.
It’s only a matter of time till someone gets killed in one of these highway HAL 9000s.
Except the car in question, a Lexus SUV, was traveling 2 mph when it put-putted into the city bus, in Mountain View, Calif. The love tap resulted in no injuries, except to the reputation of the self-driving car. And that was the first crash caused by a Google self-driving car in more than one million miles of driving.
Self-driving cars used to be the future. But are they now? They could save us all huge amounts of time — you could do your nails or read a book while your car chauffeurs you to work — and increase safety. And yet people are afraid of them.
Three-quarters of Americans say they wouldn’t feel safe in a self-driving car despite being more secure than they would be ordinarily. It’s the same principle that drives fear of flying: Even though commercial flight is practically the safest activity you can undertake in America today — you are far more likely to die from falling down the stairs — some 20 million Americans suffer from severe fear of flying, while many more have mild fear.
If America became a land of self-driving cars, the reduction in automobile fatalities would be so large that something like 30,000 lives a year would be spared. Notable losers in this scenario include every government agency that collects revenue for traffic violations. Google cars don’t speed or drive recklessly, and unlike human drivers, the electronic kind never pour any Budweiser or Jack Daniel’s into themselves.
But because journalism, like the human mind, is most engaged by anecdotes rather than data, the first fatal crash caused by a self-driving car is going to be one of the most sensational stories of the era. The face of the victim — picture an adorable little blond girl named Polly — will lead the news for days.
That’s when lawmakers will pounce. Proclaiming “these things kill people,” they’ll rush to enact “Polly’s Law” in one city or state after another. Perhaps there will even be a push for a nationwide ban. Some presidential candidate or other will realize that “Polly’s Law” may be just the way to distract the public from his or her otherwise lackluster platform.
Sure, driverless cars could save 300,000 lives a decade and $190 billion in crash-related annual health-care costs while freeing up billions of commuter hours to do things other than glaring over the steering wheel in traffic.
But when it comes to emotion vs. reason, reason is usually a bad bet.