What sounds like the punchline to a bad joke from the 80s, is in fact, the headline of newsfeeds from today. In Russia, the cars drive you. Russia’s largest tech firm, Yandex, is already demonstrating self-driving taxis.
This headline is playing out in countries all over the world. It is not just a matter of a few countries with fewer regulations. In some ways, places like Russia and China are leading the way to our driverless future. They will be the first to fully experience the possibilities of a driverless society and the implications of what that entails.
The US is not without its advantages. We tend to be slower to adopt such technology due to our regulatory system. But what we lack in speed, we make up for in sheer determination. We have a lot of money to throw at the challenge. And we have a lot of companies fighting to get their innovations on the road first.
Ford has announced its driverless car intentions for 2021. Even if Ford has the technology by that time, that is only one piece of the puzzle. There are implications to a driverless future that most people have not considered. Considering the breakneck pace we are moving in that direction, it is past time we start thinking seriously about a few of those implications such as the following:
What happens when two driverless cars get into an accident? Neither of the passengers is at fault. After all, they weren’t driving the cars. The cars were driving them. These are the kinds of questions that accident attorneys like Mike Pines will be sorting out over the next few years.
In serious accidents where there are serious injuries, someone has to pay. The situation is even cloudier when it is one human driver versus one autonomous car. In the beginning of the driverless car transition, we might be tempted to blame the technology.
But more and more people are starting to believe that the roads will be safer without human drivers. That means the human will bear the burden of suspicion. In such cases, it will be difficult to establish the innocence of the human driver. Accident attorneys have to be ready for these cases long before they hit the courts.
There are two reasons humans tend to get where they are going when they take to the streets: One, we have an insatiable appetite for life. Two, we have developed advanced, non-verbal communication skills that convey intention, and can read the intentions of others. Right now, driverless cars don’t have either of those things.
Let us hope we never impart the will to live in our technology. But we can, and should demand that driverless cars have the ability to communicate in some way with one another. In a high-speed situation where multiple cars converge, eye contact and hand gestures go a long way. What is the driverless car equivalent?
Neither Apple, Google, Uber, nor Ford is interested in software that is interoperable with the other. They each want to own a proprietary share of the market. But the software is going to have to interoperate at some level. And that might have to be legislated.
Some estimates say there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US alone. Add taxi drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers, postal drivers, parcel delivery drivers, food delivery drivers, public transportation drivers, school bus drivers, and everyone else that drives professionally. Now, imagine all those people unemployed within your lifetime.
That is the inevitable future we face. It may one day be illegal to drive. Corporate and public interests would definitely be to eliminate human drivers from the payroll. Are we ready for that kind of job displacement?
It is easy to ask questions. And these are among the easiest: How do we adjudicate accidents where there is at least one driverless car? How do we force companies to build in interoperability? And what do we do with all the humans that will be displaced by this disruptive technology?
The answers do not yet exist. But it starts with intelligent conversations where we all have a part in shaping our driverless future. That future is a lot closer than you think.