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Navigating the politics of driverless cars

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If you enjoy the intractable debate over gun control, you’ll love the cultural battle brewing over driverless-cars.

Big-name tech and auto firms, from Google to Tesla to Volkswagen, are working on vehicles that move around with a minimum of human guidance, or none at all. General Motors just invested $500 million in Lyft; the companies will collaborate on a fleet of self-driving cars that can be summoned by smartphone. This month at the North American International Auto Show, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx proposed to spend $4 billion over 10 years to conduct pilot research with "connected vehicle systems" and overhaul agency policies to accommodate them.


But not all the obstacles are technical or regulatory. The predominance of the individually owned, individually operated vehicle reflects a distinctive strain in American psychology — a frontier impulse that won't just vanish even if the objective benefits of driverless cars turn out to be enormous.

The Obama administration's 30-year transportation planning document brims with hope about these emerging technologies, and for ample reason: Taking human psychology out of driving would improve the flow of rush-hour traffic by discouraging rubbernecking and excessive lane-changing. Any remaining congestion would become a mere annoyance that passengers sit through while doing something more productive. Meanwhile, people with disabilities would have far more freedom to get around.

The number of fatal crashes caused by drivers who are drunk, distracted by their phones, or otherwise impaired also would plunge. In 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 32,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents, of which 94 percent were due to human error or impairment. If there were a line of medical research — or an overseas military operation — that could save tens of thousands of American lives a year, political support would be easy to come by.


In daily life, though, we trust our own instincts. Advanced countries with more stringent legal restrictions on private firearms have lower gun-death rates than the United States, yet the proportion of Americans who support greater controls has declined over time. Natural-living enthusiasts on the left and parental-control advocates on the right keep railing against mandatory — and time-tested — vaccines for children. Discouraging certain costly end-of-life medical treatments saves lives by freeing up money for basic health care, but fearmongers decry the effort as the handiwork of "death panels."

Making the politics of driverless cars worse, designers and regulators will enter treacherous moral territory as technology evolves.

Last fall, MIT Technology Review published an eye-opening article — entitled "Why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill" — that posed an updated variant of a classic ethical conundrum . Imagine riding in a self-driving car that, for some reason, ends up headed toward a crowd of 10 people crossing a road. The car "cannot stop in time," the article explains, "but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?"

The rational answer — steer into the wall — isn't emotionally satisfying. Of course, far starker calculations are already being made on existing automobiles. Drivers of hulking vehicles equipped with airbags, and with ornamental grille guards that inflict extra damage on anyone or anything they hit, are implicitly telling everybody else, "Not me. You."


If nothing else, advances in driverless-car technology will make such dilemmas more transparent. But consumers seldom enjoy being confronted with stark choices. When bean-counting insurance companies start offering big discounts to owners of self-guided cars, and imposing big surcharges on unreliable human drivers, there's likely to be a backlash.

Total replacement of the existing stock of motor vehicles will take a generation or more, and the shift will probably happen later in the United States than in smaller, less diverse, more technocratic countries. Someday, when residents of, say, the Netherlands or South Korea are gliding about in safe, fuel-efficient, self-guided vehicles, some in the United States will be eager to emulate them; others will dismiss any comparison as irrelevant, or an affront to American exceptionalism.

I, for one, would welcome our new robotic transportation overlords, and hope I'm overestimating the amount of resistance they'll encounter. Today, people who get all their news from Facebook are trusting the social-networking company to pick and choose incoming information for them. Maybe, by the time driverless cars are ready for the mass market, Americans won't mind letting a computer algorithm take responsibility for their physical safety as well.

In the end, though, the debate over driverless cars won't pit technophobes against early adopters. It'll hinge on the same question that lies behind so much else of our politics: What does more to promote safety and happiness — the frontier spirit, or a broader vision of connectedness?


Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Facebook: or on Twitter: @danteramos.