"We know that 80 percent of car accidents are due to human error. So we ask ourselves: What happens if human error was eliminated?"
That's U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx on January 14, announcing a proposal by the Obama Administration to allocate $4 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years for the development of self-driving cars. Whether Foxx's words fill your heart with hope or terror is a good indication of which side you'll take in the next big culture war.
Because--make no mistake--we're in for a culture war. For many years, the question of when and how autonomous vehicles will arrive was one for only computer scientists and roboticists to chew over. As of Foxx's announcement last Thursday, it's officially become a battleground for politicians at every level of government.
By lending it his imprimatur, and a budget allocation equivalent to the GDP of Fiji, President Obama may have guaranteed that an issue that until now flew mostly under the (bumper-mounted) radar will become politicized, and rapidly. Congressional Republicans have made no secret of their intention to deny Obama any sort of legislative accomplishments. Now they'll be motivated to go looking for arguments against what he's proposing.
They won't have to search hard. Conservatives have been slow to grasp why they're going to hate the self-driving future. That's because, until now, it has manifested as a matter of business innovation vs. government regulation. "Florida is in a rush to test, not to regulate," Republican state senator Jeff Brandes said about sponsoring a bill that certified the legality of driverless cars in that state.
Helped by the administration's largesse, the political math is about to change. As safe autonomous cars go from experimental to commercially available to commonplace, the question will shift from "Should driverless cars be legal?" to "Should human drivers be legal?"
That's when things will get ugly.
Lawmakers on the left will call for increasingly strict limitations on human driving, pointing out the overwhelmingly obvious benefits: dramatically reduced fatalities, traffic congestion, and pollution. Lawmakers on the right will talk loudly about the American ideals of self-reliance and personal responsibility and the importance of the open road as a symbol of freedom. And, of course, the fringes on both ends of the political spectrum will freak out over the nefarious things governments and corporations could do with their control of the roads and a database of citizens' movements.
The first battleground will be the highways. Jack Boeglin of Yale Law School theorizes that intelligent highways of the near future will require "universal compliance" to optimize traffic flow. That means prohibiting any vehicle whose occupant could interfere with its operation.
"Dedicating roads to autonomous vehicles is necessary to achieve the most benefits from autonomous vehicles," writes Jeffrey Funk, a professor at the University of Singapore who studies emerging technologies. "While using autonomous vehicles in combination with conventional vehicles can free drivers for other activities, dedicating roads to autonomous vehicles can dramatically reduce congestion, increase speeds, and thus increase the number of cars per area of the road. They can also reduce accidents, insurance, and the number of traffic police."
But there's no need to wonder how this fight will play out. We already have the script.
In all its major contours, the struggle over self-driving cars will recapitulate the endless debate around gun control. Both issues set personal liberty against public safety, urban collectivism against rural individualism, your right to own something sexy and dangerous against my right not to be killed by it.
To be sure, there's no equivalent of the Second Amendment enshrining Americans' right to drive, for the purposes of a well-regulated militia or otherwise. Nor is there a powerful pro-driver lobbying group like the NRA. The closest thing is the National Motorists Association, which lobbies against red-light cameras, speed limit laws, and other regulations it sees as anti-driver. Its membership is about 9,000, compared with about five million for the NRA.
NMA spokesman John Bowman says his group expects the roads of the future will be "segregated." "Our position is, we just hope there is room for human-driven vehicles and that drivers will have a choice," he says.
Don't be surprised if NMA's membership swells as autopilot-only lanes start popping up on freeways. Other things we could see: a spike in sales of driver-operated cars, echoing the way gun sales rise in concert with talk of gun-control laws; and calls for the makers of such cars to be shielded from liability, as gun-makers now are, when driver error results in accidents.
There is, of course, room for all kinds of compromise on many of the issues posed by the rise of autonomous cars. Cars could allow drivers to steer will running non-discretionary anti-crash software in the background that would take over in the event of an imminent collision (though there's some evidence that such "advanced driver assistance systems" make drivers less safe by lulling them into a false sense of security). Certain zones, like cities and highways, could become computer-control-only while others permit human steering. And different cities and states will be free to do as they see fit, as they do now: Even at this late date, only 34 states have primary seat belt laws for front-seat passengers.
Making any sort of laboratory-of-democracy experimentation harder will be the automakers themselves, who are already impatient for clear national guidelines upon which to base their business decisions. And if and when a broad-based drivers' rights movement emerges, compromise will become all but impossible. The issue of self-driving cars hinges on deeply-felt beliefs--our safety/my freedom--that makes it the kind of debate that won't be resolved easily. The kind that can fester for decades. Foxx's announcement means we're just getting started. Buckle up.