Some will remember that driverless cars were going to be the next big thing. Tech companies rushed to flush cash into this technology and media covered the stories. Including the injuries and deaths involving the technology. But, for a while, we were promised a future in which our cars would whisk us around, then drive away to await the next trip. Fully autonomous vehicles, it seemed, were always just a few years away. But it did seem like a good idea at the time and proponents of the tech also claimed to be motivated by a desire to save lives. From 2000 to 2015, motor vehicle deaths per year ranged from a high of 43,005 in 2005 to a low of 32,675 in 2014. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths and recently the number went back up to around 40,000. Given the high death toll, there is clearly a problem that needs to be solved.

While predictions of the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles proved overly optimistic, the claim that they would reduce motor vehicle deaths had some plausibility. Autonomous will do not suffer from road rage, exhaustion, intoxication, poor judgment, distraction and other conditions that contribute to the death tolls. Motor vehicle deaths would not be eliminated even if all vehicles were autonomous, but the promised reduction in deaths presented a moral and practical reason to deploy such vehicles. In the face of various challenges and a lack of success, the tech companies seem to have largely moved on from the old toy to the new toy, which is AI. But this might not be a bad thing if driverless cars were aimed at solving the wrong problems and we instead solve the right problems. Discussing this requires going back to a bit of automotive history.

As the number of cars increased in the United States, so did the number of deaths, which was hardly surprising. A contributing factor was the abysmal safety of American cars.  This problem led Ralph Nader to write his classic work, Unsafe at Any Speed. Thanks to Nader and others, the American automobile became much safer and vehicle fatalities decreased. While making cars safer was a good thing, this approach was fundamentally flawed.

Imagine a strange world in which people insist on constantly swinging hammers as they go about their day.  As would be suspected, the hammer swinging would often result in injuries and property damage. Confronted by these harms, solutions are proposed and implemented. People wear ever better helmets and body armor to protect them from wild swings and hammers that slip from peoples’ grasp. Hammers are also regularly redesigned so that they inflict less damage when hitting people and objects.  The Google of that world and other companies start working on autonomous swinging hammers that will be much better than humans at avoiding hitting other people and things. While all these safety improvements would be better than the original situation of unprotected people swinging dangerous hammers around, this approach is fundamentally flawed. After all, if people stopped swinging hammers around, then the problem would be solved.

An easy and obvious reply to my analogy is that using motor vehicles, unlike random hammer swinging, is important. A large part of the American economy is built around the motor vehicle. This includes obvious things like vehicle sales, vehicle maintenance, gasoline sales, road maintenance and so on. It also includes less obvious aspects of the economy that involve the motor vehicle, such as how they contribute to the success of stores like Wal Mart. The economic value of the motor vehicle, it can be argued, provides a justification for accepting the thousands of deaths per year. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these deaths, getting rid of motor vehicles is not a viable economic option. Thus, autonomous vehicles would be a good partial solution to the death problem. Or are they?

One problem is that driverless vehicles are trying to solve the death problem within a system created around human drivers and their wants. This system of lights, signs, turn lanes, crosswalks and such is extremely complicated and presents difficult engineering and programing problems. It would seem to have made more sense to use the resources that were poured into autonomous vehicles to develop a better and safer transportation system that does not center around a bad idea: the individual motor vehicle operating within a complicated system. On this view, autonomous vehicles are solving an unnecessary problem: they are merely better hammers.

My reasoning can be countered in a couple ways. One is to repeat the economic argumen: autonomous vehicles preserve the individual motor vehicle that is economically critical while being likely to reduce the death tax vehicles impose. A second approach is to argue the cost of creating a new transportation system would be far more than the cost of developing autonomous vehicles that can operate within the existing system. This assumes, of course, that the cash dumped on this technology will eventually pay off.

A third approach is to argue that autonomous vehicles could be a step towards a new transportation system. People often need a gradual adjustment to major changes and autonomous vehicles would allow a gradual transition from distracted human drivers to autonomous vehicles operating with the distracted humans to a transportation infrastructure rebuilt entirely around autonomous vehicles (perhaps with a completely distinct system for walkers, bikers and runners). Going back to the hammer analogy, the self-swinging hammer would reduce hammer injuries and could allow a transition to be made away from hammer swinging altogether.

While this has some appeal, it still makes more sense to stop swinging hammers. If the goal is to reduce traffic deaths and injuries, then investing in better public transportation, safer streets, and a move away from car-centric cities would have been the rational choice. For the most part it seems that tech companies and investors have moved away from solving the transportation problem and are now focused on AI. While the driverless car was a very narrow type of AI focused on driving vehicles and supposedly aimed at increasing safety and convenience, the new AI is broader (they are trying to jam it into almost everything that has a chip) and is supposed to be aimed at solving a vast range of problems. Given the apparent failure of driverless cars, we should consider there will be a similar outcome with this broader AI. It is also reasonable to expect that once the current AI bubble bursts, the next bubble will float over the horizon. This is not to deny that some of what people call AI is useful, but that we need to keep in mind that the tech companies seem to often focus on solving unnecessary problems rather than removing these problems.

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