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I, Robot Driver

January 26, 2012

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate, notes a few potential hurdles to self-driven cars becoming a reality beyond test courses.  One stands out.

…new things are held to a double-standard and this is particularly true in the realm of the automobile. A lot of the issues around autonomous cars amount to basically “but under some conditions something could go wrong and cars could crash and people die.” Meanwhile, more than 90 Americans die each and every day thanks to automobile mishaps, and 1.2 million are seriously injured every year. There’s a social convention in the United States that we don’t talk about those 90 daily deaths as a serious problem, even though obviously if we had nine people getting killed by terrorists every month there’d be a perpetual state of freaking out. High-speed motorized transportation is a serious business, and conventional automobiles are not held to the same tough safety standards that we apply to most other products, so it’s extremely difficult for something new to compete.

I remember Randy Cohen, the Times‘ former Ethicist, remarking that if automobiles did not exist and were magically invented tomorrow, car companies would face a very tough sell.  Here’s my account of him speaking at a Streetfilms fundraiser:

In 2009, 33,000 people were killed by cars nationwide.  Cohen asked the crowd to think about that for a second.  “Imagine you’re introducing a new transportation system,” Cohen said, “but there’s one catch: it will kill 33,000 people a year.”  Cohen hardly needed to point out that few Americans would think it was okay to build something from the ground up with such a high casualty rate, yet that’s where we stand with cars right now.

It’s only the gradual creep of auto-dependency and the way in which its now woven into our way of life that has so innurred Americans to the senseless tragedies that befall tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen on an annual basis.

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