Would a Computer-Driven Vehicle Make This Kind of Error?

Reading about the horrific train crash in Spain that killed at least 80, and thinking back to the (rare) fatal airplane crash in San Francisco brought to mind the ride I took in a driverless car a few months back at Carnegie Mellon University. Many people still distrust a computer to get them from Point A to B. How long will it be before our thinking changes and we distrust humans to do the same? The train and plane crashes both appear to be due to human error, as are the vast majority of automobile crashes (which kill more than 1 million people worldwide each year).

I haven't spent all that much time in Spain but one of the most striking observations from a recent visit was how hard it is to buy a train ticket from a machine. In many cases, you have to wait in (long) line for a human ticket-seller. Whenever I asked why, I was told this was simply done to protect jobs -- an understandable, if unsatisfying, defense in a country with 27% unemployment.

It does make me wonder how much a country or culture with a strong sense of job protection will be resistant to technological changes purely on employment grounds, even if they might produce large gains for the greater good.

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

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.). 

Your Parked Car Gets Dinged By an Unknown Driver. Now What?

A British reader named Dominic Ellison sends the following photo and note:

I saw the attached notice in the window of a neighbor's car that had been pranged and lost its bumper.

I felt that it was an interesting test in game theory and was reminded of what I think is called the Prisoner's Dilemma, as the reader must certainly ask a number of questions:

Does the owner really have CCTV evidence? If so, why does the poster not allude to make, model or registration?

Would the consequences be genuinely worse if not come forward? For example, was it a drink driver not wishing to be identified at the time?

Killer Cars: An Extra 1,000 Pounds Increases Crash Fatalities by 47%

Ever since the SUV craze began in the late 1980s, we've all known that heavier vehicles are safer for those driving them, but more dangerous for others on the road. Which is why we all started driving them. Now, in a new working paper, a pair of Berkeley economists have quantified not only the fatality risks of heavier cars for other drivers, but also the costs associated with them. Here's the abstract:

Heavier vehicles are safer for their own occupants but more hazardous for the occupants of other vehicles. In this paper we estimate the increased probability of fatalities from being hit by a heavier vehicle in a collision. We show that, controlling for own-vehicle weight, being hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier results in a 47% increase in the baseline fatality probability. Estimation results further suggest that the fatality risk is even higher if the striking vehicle is a light truck (SUV, pickup truck, or minivan). We calculate that the value of the external risk generated by the gain in fleet weight since 1989 is approximately 27 cents per gallon of gasoline. We further calculate that the total fatality externality is roughly equivalent to a gas tax of $1.08 per gallon. We consider two policy options for internalizing this external cost: a gas tax and an optimal weight varying mileage tax. Comparing these options, we find that the cost is similar for most vehicles.