Baby, You Can Program My Car (Ep. 128)

Out for a ride with Jarrod Snider of Carnegie-Mellon’s autonomous-driving lab: “The throttle, the brake, the steering wheel, the turn signals — everything is being controlled by a computer right now. I’m just sitting here.”

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.

The car’s computers, housed where the spare tire would otherwise be stowed.

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.

The men who make the driverless car go (left to right): Raj Rajkumar, Jarrod Snider, and John Dolan.

eric smith

regarding your comment on NPR about this statememt not being possible
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.

I think you mean above the median; it is possible for 80% to be above the mean. If you give a zero to someone who has an accident (say in 2013) and 1 to someone who does not then I think 80% will be above the average which should be between zero and 1 since there are probably fewer than 80% with accidents,


Yes, you're right. Consider a hypothetical group of drivers who rate themselves from 1-10 based on driving ability... n=5

[1, 9, 10, 10 ,10]
Average = 8
80% of drivers are above average.

So this is possible if the bad drivers are really really bad. But I understand what is meant, everyone can't be above average!

Russell Harris

I had to read that last sentence twice - double negatives! It would have been easier to say that there ARE some things computers do better, and this is one of them.

I read a quote from a US Navy pilot where she found that the auto-landing technology did a better job than she could, particularly on a pitching carrier deck. If we can do that, we can make driverless cars work.

Another saving is from the insurance industry and car repairers.

Plus also, I can imagine not having traffic lights - cars approaching an intersection would electronically "negotiate" who would have right-of-way based on safety, time and traffic congestion. You could even have people pay a premium for faster passage - paying money to those other people who would accept a slightly longer journey time.

Imagine too a networked car would enable traffic planners to see exactly the start and end point of all journeys, and incorporate this into their planning. We are having this exact argument in my home town now about whether to spend $5B on a tunnel - no-one can say with certainty that this will help or hinder the problem in that part of the city.



Your topic is timely, since I frequently see Google's self-driving cars on the highways here in Silicon Valley. What I want to know is how the auto insurance industry will go about sabotaging what is so clearly a public good, since they can't possibly like something that will cut deeply into their business.


I'm not sure that is necessarily the case. Insurance companies make money by properly quantifying risk and efficiently pricing against it. There should still be a need for that, even with far less risk.
In the short term, the first insurance company who can accurately price policies for computer driven/assisted cars will make a huge pile of cash. They will be able to beat the price of competitors while minimizing their own risk. Insurers love to make underwriting profit but it's hard to do while keeping a competitive price.
In the long term, the prices of individual policies will fall and total revenues along with them but I still see a glimmer of opportunity. Driverless vehicles can also imply passengerless vehicles. We might actually end up with more, smaller vehicles on the road. They could be delivering groceries, dry cleaning, or pizzas to our curbs. With more vehicles and lower, more predictable risk, insurance companies will be able to stay profitable. The auto insurance companies might be better served by lobbying for a regulatory niche for themselves so that standard business owners policies don't pick up all of that new market.


wholesale lingerie

So this is possible if the bad drivers are really really bad. But I understand what is meant, everyone can’t be above average!


Speaking as one of the very rare below average drivers, I'm really looking forward to being able to have a self-driving car. It will be a win both for safety and stress on my part.


Only all others could be the good drivers,I can a good driver.But how does make everyone to be a good driver ?You just can use the product.

John A. Bailo

Self drive could also work if we redefine the "car". For example, many people would ride transit if we could get rid of the last mile problem from the bus or train stop to the cul de sac. For that we could even use slow moving, self driven pedicabs which, even if they went bonkers, would not cause that much harm. And delivery of goods like takeout would be done by a vehicle no more complex than a Segway converted to cargo use.

Paul Godsmark

The potential impacts on society could be transformational - on the same scale as the invention of the modern motor car back some 130 years ago, or the invention of the internet. Just think how the car has shaped modern society in North America (and yet is now beginning to choke and suffocate us in some of our cities with pollution and congestion). Fortunately driverless cars could be an important part of the solution to those problems if we plan properly.
Once these vehicles are certified safe to drive unmanned then we enter a new paradigm which will impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives and will impact most businesses - with some operational and business models being completely disrupted. The scale of the changes are such that we will need clear leadership and policies in place in advance, in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides.
If you are interested I have a blog dedicated to the impacts of autonomous vehicles where I explain in more detail how things might develop:


Adam Ross

"80% of drivers rate themselves as above average". This is quite a broad statement really. When someone rates themselves 'above average' what do they really mean. Very safe a cautious drivers will probably rate themselves above average based on that characteristic of their driving. People who drive fast, on the other hand might rate themselves above average based on their ability to drive fast. If each driver interprets what is meant by 'above average' according to their own subjective opinion of a good driver then it is indeed possible for all drivers to consider themselves above average and to all be correct within their own context.


Even with assumption that driving skill is not spatial, as Adam described, it's possible to 80% be above average. Imagine 10 drivers 8 of them have skill level 100 and 2 have skill 1, average skill level is 80.2, and 80% of drivers above average.
80% can't be above _median_, not average. It's like money, more than 90% of people below average wealth.


Sorry to disagree with optimistic futures of automatic cars that do not need a human to perform...

What about malicious viruses that could infect the vehicle,and kill some thousands of passengers?
If it failed the space trasborders program,was in part,because of the so many new lines of software code that required to analice,mantain,.coordinate,the security subsystems,..just to
keep running an predictable route of the vehicle.

imagine so many new routes,predicting what will do the other vehicles that come behind and in front of the automated,some malicious software that the teenager of the family contaminated system,while chatting with her boyfriend?

ok,..ok,..malicious software will an urban myth ten years from now.


I guess these autonomous cars will put chauffeurs out of business...


Digression - I've been trying to download freakonomics podcasts from itunes, but unable to do so. They ask for credit card details. Is there any other way do download the podcasts?

Zubair Waqar

To add to the debate regarding automation, and to add to the fears of radio hosts everywhere, on BBC's "Click" podcast on 28 May i think, they interviewed a researcher working with perceptive radio. Its a program that changes the content according to your environment. In it a computer generated voice looks at your location and other details like weather, etc, and adjusts the content accordingly. I laughed when during the market place podcast its said that time is still there for computers to take away jobs from radio hosts.


So about the time the "driver-less" cars hit consumers (there's a joke in there somewhere), solar will have replaced fossil fuels granting us endless amounts of energy (at least for the next 6 billion years). With driver fatigue and the cost of fuel no longer being an issue, won't there be a astounding amount of people perpetually living in their vehicles and creating an absurd amount of gridlock?


I believe that the driverless car would mean a great deal for the disabled. Imagine the freedom that someone with mobility issues, or poor eye sight would gain with such a vehicle.