Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Baby, You Can Program My Car.” Yes, it’s about driverless vehicles. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)
I recently had the good fortune to go for a ridealong in a self-driving Cadillac SRX4 with three of the engineers responsible for making it go: Raj Rajkumar, John Dolan, and Jarrod Snider, all key players in the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab. We rode around a large track that the university has built on the site of an abandoned steel plant in Pittsburgh.
What was most remarkable, to me at least, was how unremarkable it felt to ride in a vehicle that no one was steering or braking. In other words, it felt normal — not like a science experiment or a rocket ride — and, as amazing a feat of engineering as a driverless car is, I also realized how much of the technology to go driverless already exists in the modern cars we’ve been driving for years (cameras, sensors, automation, etc.).
That said, a lot will have to happen before we live in a world where people don’t do much of their own driving. But I can’t wait! In this podcast, we try to address some of the changes and gains that driverless cars will produce. (Surely there will be complications and downsides as well.) The Economist recently published an excellent summary of a driverless future, much more encyclopedic than this short podcast could cover. (See also a 19-year-old Romanian driverless inventor and the latest in Israeli driverless technology.) I guess we will have to come back for a longer episode.
To me, the largest potential gain by far is in lives not lost. While there have been heroic gains in auto safety over the decades, there are still about 34,000 traffic deaths a year in the U.S., and more than 1 million worldwide. In the U.S., traffic accidents send more than 2 million adults to the E.R. each year — and of course the economic impact is massive as well.
There are some things that computers will never do as well as humans. Driving is probably not one of them — especially since about 80 percent of drivers rate themselves above average.
Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same. The hidden side of everything is what he does. Hey Dubner, how are you?.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey Kai, I’m great. Hey, I’ve got a question for you today: how well do you think that a computer would do you job, hosting a radio show?
RYSSDAL: Ha! What are you kidding? You been probing my nightmares? What? That’s not a good question!
DUBNER: Here’s the thing, It strikes me we’re at this fascinating point in history where we’ve all become very reliant on computers, and yet there are some things that humans do – and will always do – better, like radio hosting. But let me ask you this parallel question: how good are you at driving, let’s say?
RYSSDAL: Well, I’m a man, so of course I say I’m a great driver. Right?
DUBNER: So, no matter how good you are, even good drivers obviously pose a risk. I was talking about this with a fellow named Raj Rajkumar. He’s an engineering professor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh:
Raj RAJKUMAR “Ninety-three percent of accidents happen due to human error. We really are trying to basically take the human error tendency out of the picture.”
RYSSDAL: Okay, 93 percent I get, but how do you “take the human error tendency out of the picture” man?
DUBNER: Here’s what you do Kai: you don’t let humans drive. OK, so Rajkumar heads up a Carnegie-Mellon team that’s been developing a driverless car. A couple weeks ago, I went for a ride this car.
RYSSDAL: Really? I was about to ask if you got to drive it, but I guess not.
DUBNER: I didn’t get to drive, nobody got to drive it!
RYSSDAL: So did you go out on the city streets of, where’s Carnegie-Mellon... Pittsburgh, right?
DUBNER: We didn’t. It’s in Pittsburgh. In this case we just drove around a track that Carnegie-Mellon has built on the site of an old steel mill. But there were, on this track, there were other cars, bicyclists, there was a skateboarder in the road, there’s stop lights, there’s construction, all the elements of real driving.
RYSSDAL: What does this thing look like – does it have the big camera turret on top so it can see what’s going on, and sensors and all that?
DUBNER: Actually no. So that’s the Google car, that a lot of people have seen pictures of. So Carnegie Mellon is developing this car for General Motors, so this was a Cadillac SUV. And their mission is to build a driverless car that a) doesn’t look like a robot; and b) is relatively affordable. So all the cameras and sensors and radars are embedded in the bumpers and elsewhere. It looks pretty much like a stock car unless you open the spare-tire compartment, that’s where all the computers are. And then there’s also a big red “kill” button on the dashboard.
RYSSDAL: Aha. Is that for when the car’s about to crash into something and you’re sitting there going “Aaahhh!!”
DUBNER: Well, that’s the issue here. So GM and Google are not the only ones developing driverless cars. There’s a lot of competition – which I would argue is a very good thing – and from all the evidence so far, it appears to be astonishingly successful. At low speeds and high speeds, city streets, highways. And it looks like a driverless car will screw up a lot less than a car driven by us, by humans. So then the question gets to be: when do we get it? When does this happen for real, and what interests me really is what kind of effects will it have on society?
RYSSDAL: Well, spitball it for me. I mean, what’s going to happen?
DUBNER: Well, honestly, I personally think it’s a revolution waiting to happen. Just think about all the industries that get affected – for better or worse. The auto industry, of course, the insurance industry. Older people could live on their own longer if they don’t have to drive themselves. Drunk driving wouldn’t be such a big concern – which is good news for restaurants and bars. But to me the biggest impact by a long long shot is safety.
RYSSDAL: Yeah, because lots of people die in car accidents.
DUBNER: 34,000 traffic deaths a year, roughly, in the U.S. And if you look worldwide, 1 million deaths from traffic fatalities. Then there’s injuries. In the U.S., traffic accidents send more than 2 million adults to the E.R. each year -- and of course the economic cost of all this danger is massive. There’s also the fact that most people enjoy driving.
RYSSDAL: Pry this steering wheel from my cold, dead hands.
DUBNER: Well, that is a common sentiment. But the fact is that most of us don’t drive anywhere near as safely as we think. Get this Kai, about 80 percent of drivers rate themselves above average, which is, of course, statistically not possible. And believe me, if we found out that human error by, let’s say, public-radio hosts was causing 1 million deaths worldwide -- my friend Kai, I would replace you with a computer in a heartbeat.
RYSSDAL: Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics-dot-com is the website. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.
DUBNER: Thanks for having me Kai
RYSSDAL: Alright man, bye bye.