This essay was adapted from a debate April 13 in New York on the motion “All Hail the Driverless Car” as part of the nonprofit debate series Intelligence Squared U.S., in partnership with the Manhattan Institute’s Adam Smith Society. The entire debate will air soon on public radio and is available to hear now at intelligencesquaredus.org.
Urmson: We can't accept the status quo
In America, about 40,000 people die on the roads every year. That's roughly the equivalent of four Boeing 737 Maxes falling out of the sky every week. Where's the outrage?
The status quo is incredibly broken, and we have the opportunity to do something about this. The good news is that 96 percent of these accidents are due to human error, people making mistakes behind the wheel. Now, in general, humans are really quite good drivers. The failure rate is something like 1.5 per hundred million miles, but that's still a shockingly large number, and the reason why we have these accidents is a combination of people drinking, being distracted and being tired. Now our opponents might argue that what we should do is we should tell people not to do that, right? "Hey, don't be tired in the car. You know, don't check your cellphone." The challenge there is the prohibition just doesn't work. So we need to find a way to bring another solution to bear, and in this case the solution is tantalizingly close and that is self-driving, driverless vehicles.
But let's ask why people do these things in the car. Fundamentally, people are really bad at estimating risk and their ability. It turns out that more than 80 percent of Americans believe they are above-average drivers. Think about that for a moment. And then the second is that time is precious. It's the one thing you can't really buy more of. And so when we have the opportunity to pull a cellphone from our pocket and indulge in something fun in the midst of the tedium of driving, we do so, at great risk to ourselves and the public. So again, this technology can help with this. That is its purpose, to relieve the tedium of driving.
There's a very human cost to this, and there's a huge economic cost as well. The average American commutes about 55 minutes a day; there are about 128 million people who do that. If you multiply that by the average hourly wage in the U.S., which I looked up today — it's about $28 — that means we are spending $3 billion a day to have the privilege of commuting and hating life and having some jerk in a BMW cut you off. So, anyone who says they don't enjoy commuting, we can fix that for them. Imagine those people coming home at the end of the day, instead of cursing about the experience they just had, having had the chance to use that time productively or had the chance to read a book or relax or engage in a debate. It could have been a lot more fun, a lot better place, and I'm sure millions of partners would enjoy that. So, for me, from my perspective, the argument shouldn't be "Do we hail the driverless car?" It's "Do we really accept the cost and the loss of life, accept it with the status quo?"
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