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.

Defensive Driver

If the driverless car will eliminate tailgating, (driving too close to the car in front of you, not the pre-game stuff), then I am all for it. I don't care what most people think of their driving skills, if you tailgate you are an awful driver.

Too anecdotes: I fly a small plane. Periodically, I'll fly over major roadways and I am struck by how often I see three or four cars in a tight knot, when there is a half mile of open road both in front and behind them. This past winter, I pulled over to force an annoying tailgater to go ahead of me. Five miles later they rear ended the car in front of them at a stop light. I felt awful for the car that got hit, but took the time to stop to make sure that the driver in the wrong got a piece of my mind and heard me offer to my number to the former so that I could provide a little testimony if needed.


Driverless cars will put drivers out of jobs but so did tractors put farmers out of jobs. Most of these drivers will find other work, and in the future the people who would have become drivers will find some other productive field to work in. Some of those jobs will be things that we cannot foresee a need for yet.

Meanwhile the majority of us will benefit through cheaper transportation costs. Cheaper transportation translates into cheaper products, which means that we will be able to afford more products, which means that it raise our collective standard of living which means that the economy will get a net gain despite the loss of driving jobs.

In 1880 close to 50% of the US population were farmers. By 2000 only about 2% of the US workforce worked in agriculture. That means we lost many farming jobs to tractors, yet the standard of living went up exponentially. Why? Because all those people who would have been farmers are now free to work on other things.


Brenden Pragasam

My question is if the age of having your own car will differ due to the ease of many risks, or if someone is going to need to be behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle before they can drive themselves. And lastly but primarily, what if a place isn't ready for it yet. Take old Europe for example. Not everyone can drive in old Europe because it needs a knowledge beyond even the most skilled American drivers, so can the vehicles adapt to these conditions?