From Horse Power to Horsepower to Processing Power

(Photo: Ewen Roberts)

Some thinkers make their reputations by focusing on social justice, economic progress, or global sustainability. I took the low road and went for horse manure. It was my article on filth, flies, and putrefying horse carcasses in the 19th century city that brought me to the attention of Dubner and Levitt and, for better or worse, to this site. FYI, the article is here.

If you do peruse it, you’ll see I ended with the hope that technology will bail us out of our transportation problems just like it bailed us out of those caused by the horse. At that time, a deus ex machina descended from the heavens to improbably solve the insoluble. The savior was known as the automobile, and as it went from obscurity to ubiquity in a few decades it banished the working horse—a primary mode of transportation for thousands of years—to oblivion.

There was only one problem with my call for a miraculous technological fix: I did not have the slightest idea what that technology would be.

That was in 2006. Now, only six years later, the miracle innovation is arriving. It is not only feasible with today’s technology but is already being introduced commercially, right under our noses. There is little doubt it will be the biggest innovation in transportation since internal combustion itself. It is cars that drive themselves.

What are the potential benefits of driverless cars?

First, they promise to do wonders for traffic congestion. The reason is that human beings were not designed for the task of piloting vehicles at 70 mph; Mother Nature never conceived of us going faster than maybe 20, even when chasing the juiciest of gazelles. Our perception is poor and our reaction times slow. For this reason, we have to leave a large cushion between ourselves and the car in front of us, and we respond sluggishly when it’s time to brake or accelerate. With cars driven by microprocessor instead of synapse, superior perception and reaction times mean vehicles could be spaced much more closely together and could better coordinate their movements, for example at intersections.

I hesitate to call this a “cure” for traffic congestion, since that word has been invoked unsuccessfully before, for example when the freeway, and, for that matter, the car itself were introduced. But robocars will go a long way toward fixing our traffic problem.

Moreover, even when you do get caught in traffic, driverless cars will ameliorate your lot. Many urgent pursuits like looking up song lyrics or mastering Angry Birds could replace time otherwise wasted staring at the road. Who knows, the design of the car interior itself might turn into something resembling a little office or sitting room. Just being freed from having to stare out the window and read the annoying attempts at humor affixed to the bumper in front of you will make driverless cars worthwhile.

Driverless cars will do much to address inequity in mobility. Taxi fares will probably drop sharply when there is no longer a driver to be paid, bringing the convenience of auto travel to more low-income people. And transit service will benefit as the cost of provision falls when bus drivers are phased out.

The pressing (and growing) problem of travel by the elderly who have lost the ability to drive would largely be solved by robotic chauffeurs; this might enable people to live independently longer. At the other end of the age spectrum, once the technology is perfected we could probably send older children to school or the mall solo, saving considerable parental time and aggravation.

Driverless cars will save many lives. By maneuvering with robotic precision, they have the potential to vastly reduce the number of accidents, 90 percent of which are due to human error. This will save us fantastic amounts of grief and expense. Tens of thousands of deaths and millions of hospital visits may be avoided each year.

Bars, clubs, and beer companies have cause to rejoice; with a built-in designated driver you will never again have to worry about having one too many. Moreover, driverless cars will be programmed to obey the traffic laws, leaving the police to concentrate on more important business and sparing you from having to think up silly excuses that probably won’t get you out of the ticket anyway.

Along with mass unemployment for traffic cops, what will happen to the monetary and temporal costs of goods movement (and therefore goods) when we no longer have to pay truck drivers or leave trucks idle while drivers eat and sleep?

(Photo: Mark Doliner)

But will driverless cars ever arrive? In fact, they already have. You may have read that Google has sent driverless cars more than 300,000 miles in California, much of it on real roads surrounded by oblivious fellow motorists, without a single accident. (A few kinks remain to be worked out, though: Google is still having trouble with driving in snow and through construction sites.)

And lest you think there is a big gulf between technological feasibility and actual commercial introduction, driverless cars are already arriving through evolution, not revolution. We have had cruise control for decades and now we have adaptive cruise control which slows the vehicle and even jams on the brakes when collisions are impending. Also, carmakers are offering systems that alert the driver when he drifts out of his lane. Is it a great stretch to think that soon enough the car will get sick of beeping at you and just take the wheel itself? There are already cars which parallel park themselves; how long will it be before they just drop you off at the door and rid you of the miserable task of circling the block looking for a space?

As far as market acceptance, drivers are proving willing to pay for these innovations, particularly because they enhance safety. Anyway, the new sensing hardware and control software for fully autonomous vehicles may not be prohibitive. (Erik Coelingh, a senior engineer at Volvo, estimates about $3,000 per vehicle.)

Will government accommodate this development? Fortunately, the way technology is evolving it will take surprisingly little public expenditure. While it was once thought that roads would have to be equipped with fancy technology to enable driverless cars, it is now becoming clear that all the necessary equipment—cameras, radar, lidar (a sort of radar that uses light), etc.—can be onboard, with no new infrastructure necessary.

I have heard skeptics complain about legal and regulatory hurdles. Perhaps at first there will be. But it is unlikely that, given time to prove itself, a technology that drastically reduces the number of accidents will be held back because of trouble assigning responsibility for those crashes that do occur. In fact, the day will come when it is driving, not driverlessness, that the state will try to legislate away. Anyway, the regulatory road has already begun to be paved; Nevada is now issuing driverless car licenses.

Lest I get carried away, it’s important to remember a caveat from the horse manure story. While the auto did eliminate the problem of horse pollution, as we now know it sowed the seeds for vexing new environmental problems of which proponents at the time were blissfully ignorant. How might driverless cars make us be careful what we wished for?

In one way, driverless cars promise to cut fuel consumption and emissions, by coordinating car movements in a way that smooths traffic flow and improves aerodynamics through the “platooning” of the vehicles. However, by making car travel so much cheaper, faster and easier, driverless cars may harm the environment by promoting lots more driving. It is true that other technology is currently addressing this problem, with electrification (e.g., the Volt) and many other efficiency improvements like improved transmissions, materials, tires, and aerodynamics. Still, emissions and fuel use will remain a vexing problem that driverless cars could conceivably exacerbate.

By making driving easier and more pleasant, and by cutting congestion and thus reducing travel times, driverless cars promise to increase suburbanization and “sprawl” as people choose to live farther from the central city and their places of work. But whether this is a problem is in the eye of the beholder, and is a topic for another day. And it is possible that driverless cars might also foster density, if people are willing to switch to car sharing and we need fewer parking places.

Nobody has mentioned this yet, but the number of organ donors will plummet when the supply of auto accident victims dries up, though I’m sure all of us would accept that trade-off.

On the lighter side, Hollywood will have to come up with a substitute for interminable car chases, and a microprocessor will be less fun to hate than Jeff Gordon. Still, on balance, getting humans out from behind the wheel will be well worth it.

Obviously, there is going to be pushback against this technology, because for many the idea of computers ruling the world is kind of scary. Driverless cars will ultimately result in tremendous safety improvements, but no doubt accidents involving computer control are going to get major publicity because the technology is new and exotic, while old-fashioned deaths due to human error are too humdrum to make the news. We are going to have to overcome fears that our robocars will cut our life support systems while we are in suspended animation or flush us out of the airlock like the HAL 9000. Indeed, when the car itself was introduced, safety issues led to widespread public protest, including mass demonstrations and riots. It is unclear how many decades it will take for robocars to be accepted and reach their full potential.

But one key factor works in robocars’ favor. Unlike many other methods for ameliorating the problems caused by automobility, technological improvements in the auto have a proven track record of adoption and success. Crash fatality rates have plunged and fuel economy has surged over time thanks to technology. The reason for this success is that technology can fix problems without asking Americans to sacrifice the mobility to which they have been accustomed, and in the case of driverless cars will even increase mobility, as the auto itself did.

Surprisingly few people, even within the transportation planning world, are talking about this pending revolution. The Economist has been writing about it (see this, and this which goes into the technology issues I don’t have space to cover here), but as usual few people are as smart as they are.

But though modern thinkers might be neglecting this issue at the moment, I’ll bet some lucky future historian is going to get as much mileage chronicling the almost-forgotten foibles of inept human drivers as I got from horse droppings.

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COMMENTS: 50


  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Roger prime says:

      So take this thought one step further: it’s not robocars, but the need to engage in excess transportation that robots and, more specifically, microprocessors are removing. With more compute power, fewer and fewer excursions for fewer and fewer people are necessary. I can easily envision a future where most physical transportation is used for physical goods, people use automated transportation only when necessary, the “workplace” as we know it is utterly gone, and even grocery shopping is mostly online. You’ll only “go for a drive” for fun, in places designated specifically for that purpose (the Garden State Parkway re-envisioned), and otherwise transportation will be virtually free, widely accessible and mostly unnecessary.

      People of the future will both laugh and cry at all our current wasted motion, the primary curse warming the planet.

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  2. SB says:

    Here’s one potential “bad” scenario: loss of individual freedom. Who gets to decide where the car will go? Ubiquitous wireless technology + self driving cars means that, not only are all of your movements easily trackable, but potentially controllable.

    Want to go out for yet another booze-fueled bender tonight? Not so fast, champ, your nanny-bot (perhaps a new govt regulation?) says you’ve had enough.

    Want to head downtown to participate in the protests against the latest govt over-reach? Not so fast, citizen, that area has been restricted from travel.

    What will become of all the unemployed truck and cab drivers? Sure to be a painful transition.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 19
    • pawnman says:

      The same thing that happened to the guys who used to light the street lamps and kill whales for their oil, I imagine. No one wrings their hands over the plight of the carriage driver or milkman. they’ll transition to something, I’m sure.

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    • JAM says:

      “Want to go out for yet another booze-fueled bender tonight? Not so fast, champ, your nanny-bot (perhaps a new govt regulation?) says you’ve had enough.”

      To a degree we have seen this already. Cars with wheel speed sensors employed by ABS brake systems have computers on them that can detect wheels spinning at different speeds. The car can effectively cut the air intake and reduce the engine speed when this condition is detected. Great for traction control, but bad if you want to “burn rubber”.

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    • Mike B says:

      When systems are automated they are vulnerable to being captured by policy. Today’s speed limits are completely laughable, designed in the 1950′s for cars with no ability to stop or handle and turned to the lowest common denominator driving skill. Today they are largely ignored and if actually obeyed would create massive traffic jams.

      Driverless cars of course would need to obey every traffic law least the manufacturer be liable in any number of ways. In theory such cars should be allowed to go faster due to their safer method of operation, but for any number of other reasons including institutional inertia and thinking of the children you know that they won’t. Moreover, just to make sure that automated vehicles never accidentally exceed the speed limit they will be turned to max out at about 5-10% lower…just to be safe, even though today’s speed limits have a safety factor built in.

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      • econobiker says:

        +1 for the “thinking of the children” reference

        Funny that this is only a reason when death or dismemberment could arise.

        It is never used for as a reason to stop a bank from foreclosing on homes using fraudulently signed documents or similar, more costly dollar for dollar, administrative crimes or ethically questionable activities like a big bank illegally laundering drug money or allowing terrorist country money to flow through it…

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      • Goatherd says:

        Speed limits may be too slow on highways, but they are far too fast in cities. Increasing the speed limits in cities would not improve traffic flow, which is almost always a result of congestion. It would just mean that drivers could speed from one red light to another.

        Meanwhile, pedestrians are being killed and injured at shocking rates. 4000 deaths, 60,000 injuries per year in the USA. Driverless cars would reduce this and reduce congestion. Raising speed limits in cities would make both worse.

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      • James says:

        “Today’s speed limits are completely laughable, designed in the 1950?s for cars with no ability to stop or handle and turned to the lowest common denominator driving skill.”

        Ah, yes. This is why, back in the bad old days when I worked in an ‘urb, I wasted many an hour driving from San Jose to Tracy (I680-580-205, with IIRC 65 mph limits posted) at an average speed of about 20 mph – and that was despite trying to schedule travel for lower-traffic periods.

        Speed limits aren’t the problem here.

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    • Tytalus says:

      Agreed. The opportunity for social control is pretty incredible.

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  3. Tom Kelly says:

    Driverless cars should end urban sprawl. Two reasons: Parking is no longer required as the cars will drive themselves to a storage and maintenance facility when not in use; and driverless cars will let you live in a dense urban area while sending the kids off to school to the best available schools, not necessarily in the neighborhood, they can do homework enroute while you monitor/help on video.

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    • equired says:

      Sure, they’ve got to end the parking “problem”, but I thought people lived in the suburbs because they liked the big yards.

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  4. Travis T. says:

    Where will cities make up the lost revenue from traffic violations?

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    • m.m says:

      I predict new and exciting fees for annually registering driverless cars, as well as exorbitant (and easily tracked, thanks to millions of GPS-enabled, networked cars) congestion pricing.

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      • OAO says:

        It’s good that the drivers pays for the road at the maginal cost. Nowadays it’s free, so everyone is paying for those who have a car. There is many costs, including engineering, land, parking. It will result in a more efficient city, with less cars and more pedestrians and public transportation.

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  5. sb says:

    Also: consider the labor uprising(s). The Teamsters will not sit idly by while their livelihood is replaced by robots.

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    • pawnman says:

      Someone still has to load and unload the trucks, right?

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      • JAM says:

        If you can replace a driver, it should be child’s play to replace a loader, assuming you don’t have exotic shape packages.

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    • Mike B says:

      Labor has no power to stop this. However the massive unemployment that will result from driverless vehicles will need to be addressed somehow. Realistically there will be some need for human attendants in trucks and buses in case of breakdown or maneuvering in tight places where the automated systems can’t functional well. However the reduced skill needed by said drivers will dramatically reduce their compensation.

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  6. Dave says:

    The insurance lobby is very powerful as well. They will not take kindly to reduced revenues. I see a lot of propaganda in our future.

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    • punmaster says:

      The insurance lobby will be behind this – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see driverless cars brought into the mainstream simply by the massively lower rates for owners of driverless cars. They’ve already started offering lower fees for those that use GPS trackers, after all. It’ll be an interesting tradeoff – lower revenue from reduced rates vs lower payouts due to reduced accidents.

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    • JAM says:

      They lobby that should probably be against this is attorneys. With the reduced accidents, and all of the recorded data that will be on hand in the event, it seems that attorneys will be left with little to argue about.

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      • Clancy says:

        A reduced number of accidents, yes, but there will still be some. And the accidents that do happen can be blamed on the auto manufacturers who have a lot more cash than your average drunk driver. It would be a boon for large, well-positioned firms doing class-action at the expense of the smaller personal injury guys.

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  7. Eric C says:

    Another potential benefit of driverless cars is increased fuel efficiency, precipitated by the elimination of arms races for ever faster, ever larger, and ever heavier cars. Cars without drivers could be very light and small, partly because they won’t be crashing into each other, partly because no one will feel the need to see over everyone else, and partly because no one will feel the need to out-accelerate everyone else.

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    • Eliot M says:

      Don’t forget the uncontrollable desire for people to acquire new things, which will lead to the need to transport those new things. Small, self-driving cars won’t all be tiny. Somebody will still need to transport my couch and mattress in the future.

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  8. Ian M says:

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  9. m.m says:

    “Nobody has mentioned this yet, but the number of organ donors will plummet when the supply of auto accident victims dries up, though I’m sure all of us would accept that trade-off.”

    I think you’re wrong here. While people will gladly buy driverless cars, they will never buy driverless motorcycles. It defeats the whole purpose of motorcycle riding. So there will still be tons of motorcycle organ donors (well, perhaps somewhat fewer, if the other cars are all computer-controlled).

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    • JAM says:

      Only in a situation without a functioning market would anyone lament the reduction of the accidental deaths to preserve the number of associated organ donors.

      The real answer to our persistent transplant organ shortage is to let potential donors be free to make decisions about there own bodies without government interference.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  10. James says:

    The horse has been banished to oblivion? I’ll be sure to tell that to my Anglo-Arab mare the next time we head out for an afternoon ride. She can pass the news on to all the working ranch horses in the neigborhood :-)

    Seriously, this whole article seems like an exercise in inside-the- box thinking. Back in 1915, when the US had about 21 million horses, people had to congregate in cities and commute to offices and factories to do pretty much any sort of work other than farming, so they built a “live in cities, commute to work” box. Over the years we’ve crammed more technology into that box, going from horse-drawn omnibusses and elevated railways to 500 horsepower SUVs and mass transit, but it’s still the same box. It’ll still be the same box if it’s filled with self-driving cars running off cold fusion powerplants.

    Most people have, like Mr. Morris, entirely missed the fact that a large, and increasing, fraction of the population can kick their way out of the box. Technology makes it possible to live in one place and work in any other, with nothing but a few electrons & photons bridging the intervening distance. And some of us can even keep our horses (currently about 10 million strong) out here.

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  11. frankenduf says:

    the drone bus may be problematic- i think there are social circumstances that are mediated by a human driver, which may cause chaos with no driver- ie, the bus will likely need a human rider who is in charge anyway- and dont forget pilotless airplanes

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  12. Enter your name... says:

    Perhaps it will replace short-hop air travel. Imagine strapping yourself into a recliner and saying “I’ll just take a nap while the car drives 300 miles”. No security screening. No boarding delays. More leg room. What’s not to like?

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    • OAO says:

      Well, in Europe you usually use trains for 300 miles travels. No security screening, no boarding delays, but still no place for legs. And it is faster than cars, up to more than 200 miles per hour.

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  13. Søren Have says:

    Actually driverless cars may increase congestion, due to (at least) the following reason: As the car steer itself, you can do something else and suddenly the transit time becomes productive time (or recreational). You will then accept longer commute time and more people will then be on the roads (rather than taking public transport or moving closer to work).

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
  14. Joel Upchurch says:

    I totally support the effort for robocars. The biggest obstacle will be liability lawyers who see the companies who develop robocars as the deepest pockets in any lawsuit. General aviation has seen the same problem with any plane crash is seen as a reason to attack the manufacturer by lawyers. This doesn’t mean that the innovation won’t happen, but that the innovation in the U.S. will lag behind other countries.

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  15. Caleb B says:

    Hear, hear!!

    With computers running the show, cars will instantly go as soon as the light changes.

    It’s been my everlasting pain to be in a long line of cars, watch the light change, and wait 30 seconds before I can release my brake. If everyone would just pay attention to the light, we could all release our brake at the same time and all make it through…but far too often, I have to sit through two lights needlessly.

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    • econobiker says:

      Actually lights controlling certain roads should be replaced with roundabouts if the volume dictates so no one “stops” – just yielding only.

      Then the remaining lights should be “smart” also and respond to keeping the the road with the most volume building up clear.

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  16. umash says:

    Considered the insurance lobby? They will fight the development tooth and nail, if they see the auto insurance premiums going down.

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    • Stuart says:

      No – insurance premiums will go down because driving is safer and hence the cost of claims to insurance companies will be less as there will be less claims.

      Insurance companies would have no problem with this.

      In fact, assuming the same amount of profit per policy (i.e. the price only being driven down by the lower cost of payouts), and insurance becoming more affordable – and hence more people buying insurance policies, insurance should become a more profitable business.

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  17. Jaime says:

    “Moreover, driver-less cars will be programmed to obey the traffic laws, leaving the police to concentrate on more important business and sparing you from having to think up silly excuses that probably won’t get you out of the ticket anyway.”

    This is a complete misconception. Most law enforcement agencies worldwide (at a local level at least) use revenue from traffic tickets to pay, not just the traffic officers, but a great deal of their operational expenses as well. Now, I’m all for driver-less cars but expect local governments to introduce tax increases to fund the current police (even without traffic officers).

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  18. Jasper says:

    “flush us out of the airlock like the HAL 9000″

    Thanks a lot, man, I hadn’t seen the movie yet.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
    • econobiker says:

      Note to Jasper: Buy, rent, download 2001: A Space Odyssey before the end of 2012.

      My recommendation is to watch it on a big screen TV with stereo surround sound – do not watch it on an iPhone screen. You’ll know why after you see it…

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  19. Griff says:

    The benefits described in the article are already available in the UK, through our unique ‘catch the bus’ and ‘catch the train’ technology.

    I was able to work and read the newspaper while travelling to work today – and no parking problem!

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  20. econobiker says:

    Driver-less cars are not squat in saving real big money except for insurance companies since people are the biggest problem with causing accidents while driving cars…

    The real money is in driver-less tractor trailer trucks. A company like Wal-Mart would jump at eliminating the cost of paying drivers to transport goods from distribution centers to store sites.

    If US cities really wanted to lower congestion and parking issues, the governments would allow free scooter and motorcycle use (no tolls or parking fees). And US cities and towns could cut down on accidents and save infrastructure costs immediately, if more adopted the European style roundabout for intersections applicable to that configuration. Less T-bone accidents and less electricity and maintenance of traffic lights.

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    • Stuart says:

      I live in Melbourne, Australia, and we already have the scooter and motorcycle iniatives you suggest (they are toll free on tollroads, and you can just park them on the footpath in the city, for free).

      Doesn’t really make much difference, we still have plenty of congestion and parking issues.

      I think people can’t justify owning a motorcycle instead of a car (as they still need to transport the family around, or stuff around) and can’t justify owning a motorcycle and a car (because of the initial cost, plus two sets of registration, insurance etc)

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  21. Flaco says:

    Volvo had a demonstration of their automatic braking system a couple years ago. It didn’t go very well.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNi17YLnZpg

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  22. Rick says:

    I see all the lawyers high-fiving each other. What manufacturer in their right mind would put a driverless car on the road? Wouldn’t they have to be operated by a computer of some sort? If one ten thousandth of one percent of the 300 million cars on the road had problems chaos would ensue and our courts would be clogged forever.

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  23. Anthony says:

    People out there have been talking about self-driving cars and organ donation rates:

    http://www.driverlesscarhq.com/transplants/

    In short, if self driving cars become ubiquitous it could reduce organ donation rates by ~20% of current levels.

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  24. Daniel Brami says:

    I have been thinking about this question for some time – how will driver-less cars gain a foothold into America’s car culture?
    I believe this will come through economic sense. As driver-less cars become demonstratively safer and less accident prone, insurance companies will start to squeeze human drivers out of the driver’s seat. Once you no longer drive your own vehicle, the desire to own your own will fade and car-sharing services will become the norm.
    Like the author describes, the traditional car seating configuration will become deprecated as interiors will converge towards business class seating (think Lufthansa’s cutting edge designs).
    The passenger will be able to do work or sleep on this commute, reclaiming the time as his own.

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  25. Susan St. Laurent says:

    Re: Driverless cars

    I’m unable to drive (crippled…oh, and can’t see very well). I rely on other people and the local transit system. I think a driverless car would be awesome, and I think my husband would love it because then I could ferry the kids around. Sign me up.

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