Should Humans Be Allowed to Drive?

Robotic Drivers Will Make Streets Safer for Bicyclists and Pedestrians

NPR had an interesting article this morning about robot-driven cars.  Apparently Google has had several of these vehicles on the road for years. Up until now they have taken a “don’t ask permission and apologize afterwards” approach. But recently Google hired a lobbyist who is promoting the idea that these vehicles should be allowed to have driver’s licenses. The idea is that while the robot is in training it will have a bright red license plate so that people know it is a “student driver”. And after it proves itself it will have a bright green license plate.

Many people may balk at the idea of robots on the road. My perspective as a bicyclist is this: the sooner the better. Nothing could be worse than human drivers. Here are a few reasons we should welcome the robots:

No more blind spots. Have you ever been waiting (on your bike or on foot) at an intersection and had a motorist make a right turn within inches of you as you started across? Need I even ask this question? This is a daily occurrence for city dwellers. One reason this situation is so dangerous is that human drivers don’t always look over their shoulder when turning right. If you’re slightly behind the driver you’ll be in their blind spot. A robotic vehicle, in contrast, has multiple sensors. It will not miss the fact that you are alongside it.

No more drunk and distracted drivers. We all probably know someone who was killed or injured by a drunk driver. I know several. Numerous studies show that drivers talking on cell phones are as dangerous as drunk drivers. And yet I bet the majority of people reading this have used their cell phone while driving. Any dangers from robotic drivers are easily surpassed by the dangers from this widespread callousness of human drivers.

No more motorists’ speeding. In my experience exactly no motorists follow arguably the most important traffic rule of all: the speed limit. I know that it’s no motorists because I’ve done a radical little experiment: I drove at the speed limit. Several times I’ve made day-long car trips on the highway driving exactly at the speed limit. In seven hours of driving all other motorists passed me. I didn’t pass anyone. Apparently motorists don’t feel obligated to obey this law. A robot would be programmed to obey the law.

No more motorists’ ignorance of the rules. For example I suspect that the vast majority of human drivers think it is illegal for a bicyclist to “take the lane”; that is, for a bicyclist to ride in the middle of the lane if there is no shoulder or to avoid getting “doored” by a parked car. Some motorists are even moved to shout “Ride on the sidewalk!” at bicyclists who have taken the lane. Apparently they are ignorant of the fact that in my town there is a $150 fine for adults riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. I have not yet met anyone (both motorists and bicyclists) who knows what a “Bicycles share the road” sign means. (It means the road doesn’t have a shoulder so motorists should expect bicyclists on the road.) Nor anyone who knows what “sharrows” are. (They are arrows painted in the middle of a lane showing bicyclists the safest place to bike.) Even professional drivers don’t know the rules. The other day a UPS driver shouted at me “You’re not a vehicle! You’re supposed to move to the side of the road!” It just so happens that I was standing on a sharrow in the middle of the road at the time. Not only do these human drivers not know the rules, they think they know the rules; this makes it unlikely they will ever learn the actual rules. Robot drivers will be programmed to know and respect the rules.

No more motorists’ irrational driving. No more competition instead of cooperation. One of the daily satisfactions I had as a bike courier in Washington D.C. was continuously out-performing the most expensive performance cars in the city. Human drivers in souped-up automobiles, typically male, seemed infuriated at the prospect of a bicyclist being in front of them. They would come up behind me, floor it to pass me, and then come to a stop at a traffic light within a few hundred feet. Within a few seconds I would be sailing by them and often blocks ahead by the time they moved again. It upset me that their testosterone-induced irrational behavior put my life at risk. A robot would know that there is nothing to be gained by passing a bicyclist in city traffic; a bicyclist moving at a steady 20mph will reach a destination much faster than an automobile having occasional bursts of 50mph speed but otherwise being stuck in traffic. This is what makes courier deliveries by bike so much faster than deliveries by car. The fact that slow and steady is faster than stop-and-go is common knowledge in traffic engineering circles. Traffic engineers will program robotic vehicles to communicate with each other by radio so that they all move at a steady pace rather than irrationally and inefficiently competing to be in front.

No more motorists playing chicken with my kids’ lives. No matter how polite motorists may be on the surface, they know that in any game of “chicken” pedestrians and bicyclists will give way first. My kids cross a busy intersection on their way to school. Sure, waiting motorists may sometimes grant my kids’ right-of-way to them with a kingly or queenly wave. But just as often they speed forward and expect my kids to stay out of their way.

No more blaming the victim. Upon pain of death our kids must be trained not to enter that automobile-usurped public space known as “the street” without the permission of all motorists present. A child or pet or wild animal who violates this rule and is hit by a motorist is arrogantly considered to have killed themselves rather than been killed by that motorist. We say “Fluffy got out and got hit by a car” rather than “a motorist killed my pet”. The motorist may feel remorse, but they will arrogantly blame you for letting your pet get out rather than question why they need to drive a lethal vehicle in your neighborhood when non-lethal alternatives are available to them. Robotic vehicles will have the opposite of arrogance. They will be impartial and humble. If a person steps in front of them they will stop, no questions asked, and furthermore they will stop more quickly than a human driver could. If a child does get hit by a robotic vehicle we will re-program the vehicle to go more slowly. This is in contrast to our current system whereby in response to hundreds of thousands of children getting hit in the 1920’s we simply trained the surviving children to keep out of the way. Our communities can do better than that. In fact I anticipate that in the future a big problem will be children jumping in front of robotic vehicles knowing that those vehicles can’t help but stop. But this is a problem I can live with.

No more road rage. No more motorists shouting at me. No more threats. If you are a bicyclist you know what I mean. As a bicyclist in the United States I’m put in an awkward position: it’s not safe for me to bike in a way that I don’t get yelled at. Studies show that it is much safer to ride visibly, out in the open, out in the street rather than skulking along the sidewalks and popping out into the street at intersections. And yet that very visibility makes me a target for the wrath of the motorists I share the road with. I suspect robots will be less emotional. And I sure hope they can program the robots with a gentle voice for “excuse me” and a more urgent voice for “look out!” Human drivers currently only have “honk!” for excuse me and “honk!” for look out.

So should humans be allowed to drive? Clearly no. Robotic drivers will be a win-win-win solution for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, pets, children, and wild animals. Former-human-drivers who need the cargo-capacity of a truck or the weather protection of a car will be whisked to their destination in their robotic vehicle. Their trip will be faster and safer than if they had driven themselves. Former-human-drivers who pine for the excitement of tooling around town in a 4,000 pound metal box will discover the even greater excitement of the bicycle. And all of us will benefit from public spaces free from the threat of human drivers.