Autonomous Cars: Not Why You Think

As Bob Dylan once said, “The times they are a-changin’.” Part of the change on the vehicular landscape is autonomous, or self-driving, cars.

In a 2015 LinkedIn Pulse post, John C. Abell, an excellent writer with a history at Reuters and Wired, wrote a post entitled Self-Driving Cars: A Super Cool Idea Whose Time Will Never Come. While I agree with many points in his article, I disagree with the overall premise.

I believe self-driving cars will come to fruition and populate our roads by the millions.

700,000 Accident-Free Miles

Abell began his article by citing the milestone of 700,000 accident-free miles driven by Google’s autonomous Lexus and Toyota vehicles in the Mountain View, California area. Because LinkedIn’s offices are close to those of Google, Abell often sees Google’s robotically driven vehicles on the roads.

He wrote, “Some dreams come true, but I’m very skeptical about self-driving cars,” citing one of his reasons as the fact that fully autonomous vehicles aren’t that much safer than cars equipped with “driver assistance systems” such as “lane-drifting warnings, drowsiness detection, and adaptive cruise control.” While I need to do more research, I understand what he’s saying here. Although I think fully-automated vehicles are the safest option of all.

Abell then states “If driverless cars can reduce accidents, that would be a compelling argument. Consumers respond to safety ratings, especially if they have children.” Other than his overall prediction of the demise of self-driving cars, this is my main point of contention.

Drivers Don’t Care

I once Tweeted “The only true reality is consumer behavior.” I don’t think the average car buyer knows if the model they’re considering has received a five-star crash rating. And I don’t think most consumers care. A car buyer’s biggest safety concern? I’d bet my next book advance that it’s “Does it have airbags?” Even the planned Elio car, at only $7,000, would feature three airbags.

Because nearly all vehicles on the road today, in all price categories, feature airbags, even this has become an assumption and a moot point—and probably a question rarely asked of dealership salespeople.

I inquired with my friend Buzz Smith, a senior salesperson at a Dallas/Fort Worth Chevrolet dealership about his opinion. “My experience is probably five percent or less [ask about safety issues]. Most ask about horsepower, miles per gallon, warranty terms, and available colors,” he said, adding, “I think cars have gotten to a point that it is assumed they’re safe.”

Autonomous cars will offer amazing safety and significantly reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. There’s a reason Google’s robotic cars have achieved nearly a million accident-free miles. And they’re only test mules and prototypes, not market-ready production models!

Convenience is Key

That said, I simply don’t believe it will be safety that entices buyers to jump on the self-driving car bandwagon. As a society, we’re more hedonistic than safety-focused. This is similar to how, for most buyers, it’s not environmental concerns that are the chief motivator for purchasing an electric car like a Nissan LEAF or Tesla Model S (it’s saving money on gas and maintenance, or technolust and having the coolest car on the block).

Instead of safety concerns, it will be convenience that drives consumers to purchase autonomous cars.

We are a nation of convenience. There’s a reason even Pizza Hut and Walgreens have a drive-thru. Consumers with work commutes will desire an autonomous vehicle so they can recoup their commute time. They’ll use their “drive time” to help their career by studying, working, or even holding mobile meetings. Others will simply mess around playing full-on Angry Birds or commenting on their friends’ casserole recipes or deer hunting photos on Facebook.

Most of us don’t own sports cars and aren’t auto enthusiasts. Driving is a chore. I’m weird; I love it (even in crappy little econoboxes). I get plenty of opportunities to drive my wife’s car. Whenever we travel together, she would rather sit in the passenger seat. She’s more like the average middle class driver than me.

Legal Liability

Abell’s other point regarded legal liability. He wrote, “If a self-driving car is in an accident, who—what—is to blame? I wouldn’t want to be sued if I didn’t play an active role.” Agreed. Which reminded me of an article I had read a few months earlier.

Regarding liability, Google actually thinks it should be liable! According to The Atlantic in a May 19, 2014 article entitled Google’s Self-Driving Cars Have Never Gotten a Ticket, Ron Medford, safety director for Google’s self-driving car program (and former deputy admin for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) said, “What we’ve been saying to the folks in the DMV, even in public session, for unmanned vehicles, we think the ticket should go to the company. Because the decisions are not being made by the individual.”

Trippy. And likely not words that will put a smile on the faces of Google investors. Something tells me that the insurance industry needs to prepare for some serious disruption. Allstate, Nationwide, USAA: Are you paying attention?

But I don’t think it will be Google that popularizes autonomous cars (although it may hold an impressive patent portfolio or partner with major automakers). It will more likely be Tesla and Nissan. I think Google will be off developing contact lenses that tell me if I have testicular cancer….

[For an excellent high-definition video about Google’s driverless car tech, check out this video.]

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All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.