The Autonomous Car Debate Sidelines the Most Important Question – How?

As eager as I am to talk about the coming innovations in the auto industry, the autonomous car debate has got to be one of the most beat-the-dead-horse discussions I’ve ever seen, and I’m guilty of adding to it (see two other posts… hopefully this will be the last). On one side, you have the Silicon Valley techs that are firmly convinced that technology for technology’s sake is the quickest way to create a flourishing utopia. On the other hand, you have the doomsayers who predict that no one will want the autonomous car and is just the latest macro-trend of the recent generations’ lack of work ethic and iPhone obsession.

Overall, this debate as to whether autonomous cars will or won’t be more efficient and safe is a silly roadblock to more serious discussions about how a world with autonomous cars might work given the limits of both technology and humans. Until both sides get beneath the surface of this dramatic shift in personal transport, expect to see both sides continue to throw their food across the cafeteria at each other. 

The mountain of articles from well-respected experts on both sides of the debate focus on four questions: would autonomous cars actually make us more productive? Would autonomous cars actually make us safer? Would people actually want them? And what are the moral implications for a car that decides who lives and dies? Both sides have their own research data to answer these questions affirmatively in their favor, leaving no one happy. To this day, however, I’ve yet to see serious talks on how these autonomous cars actually increase productivity or make us safer, and the answers that have been given are less than comforting. 

Google is the only one that has made a halfway-decent effort by saying that autonomous cars will be able to travel closer together on roadways, thereby making room for more cars, and also that autonomous cars won’t crash. The rebuttal to this argument should be that both of the points Google made assume an overwhelming adoption rate, but the opposition is too upset about the drawbacks of autonomous cars to be able to have a serious thought about how their fears might be able to be curbed in how autonomous cars might interact with our world. 

At this point, the debate should turn to how we can create special infrastructure or somehow adapt existing infrastructure to separate autonomous driving from human driving, specifically on highways. In following California’s example with clean vehicle lanes, incentivizing people to adopt new technology is the surest way to success, not through debating the opposition to death. 

In shifting the conversation to how autonomous cars can help us lead safer, more efficient lives, both sides of the talks can start to have real discussions that might actually begin to find common ground. For example, if we created specific autonomous driving lanes on major highways while leaving other roadways as semi-autonomous, we’d probably resolve some of the major contention. At the same time, people would realize how much cooperation between governments, construction groups, tech companies, urban planners, and car companies is going to be necessary to truly realize productivity gains and safety enhancements, sparking even more specific and applicable conversations. 

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