Will Computer-Piloted Cars Live Up To Their Potential?

The Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of in Washington, DC May 14, 2012.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages

I read a lot of excitement today about California moving legislation that would create a legal regulatory framework for computer-driven cars, but I still wonder if this technology will ever be allowed to live up to its potential.

The way the bill envisions this working is that “licensed drivers would apply to become backup operators of approved autonomous cars” and “the driver would still need to sit behind the wheel in case the robotic functions of the car suddenly fail and a real driver is needed.” That’s nice but requiring a licensed driver to be behind the steering wheel sort of undermines the purpose of building a car that doesn’t need a human driver. For example, if the car doesn’t need a licensed driver then a blind person can take it to the office or a 15 year-old can get to the movies with his friends. What’s more, if the car doesn’t need a licensed driver then an adult with no visual impairment can ride the car to the arena before the basketball game and then drive off instead of needing to park.

That kind of thing—something resembling ubiquitous very cheap taxies—would be revolutionary, opening up vast new horizons of safe speedy mobility to teenagers, the elderly, the disabled, or the very drunk while allowing urban planning to shift away from its current obsession with parking. If it’s just a kind of super-duper cruise control then you have a kind of incremental advancemennt of existing car technology.

The fact that Uber, a much more modest effort to disrupt the taxi industry keeps running into local regulatory problems keeps me good and skeptical about the more transformative case studies.

The fact of the matter is that if American cities wanted to make cab rides much cheaper and more ubiquitous in order to enhance people’s mobility options they could easily make that happen. But they haven’t embraced that as a policy goal. Instead they’ve chosen to serve the interests of various categories of license-holders and I’m not sure what about technological advance will necessarily change that.