Never Bet Against Tim Lee: Self-Driving Cars Edition

Tim Lee and Ryan Avent have made a bet about the future of self-driving cars, and you can read about it here:

This morning I had a bit of an argument on Twitter with Ryan Avent about the future of self-driving cars. He thinks his infant daughter will never need to learn to drive because self-driving cars will be ready for prime time before she reaches her 16th birthday in 2026. I’m more skeptical. I think self-driving cars are coming, but I doubt we’ll see them available to consumers before the 2030s.

And so they’ve made a bet about whether self-driving cars will be widely available to those of us without driver’s licenses when that years rolls around. Having written extensively about self-driving cars, Tim makes a compelling case: it takes a long time for an ambitious product that could cause death and dismemberment to make it from the research lab to cul-de-sacs across the country.

I found Tim’s last two points particularly strong, on liability and the regulatory environment:

If a human driver crashes his car, he may get sued for it if he harms a third party, but the settlement amount is likely to be relatively small (at most the value of his insurance coverage) and the car manufacturer probably won’t be sued unless there’s evidence of a mechanical defect. In contrast, if a self-driving car crashes, the car manufacturer is almost guaranteed to be sued, and given the way our liability system works the jury is likely to hand down a much larger judgment against the deep-pocketed defendant. And this will be true even if the car’s overall safety record is much better than that of the average human driver. The fact that the crash victim was statistically less likely to crash in the self-driving car will not impress the jury who’s just heard testimony from the victim’s grieving husband. So self-driving cars will need to be much safer than normal human-driven cars before car companies will be prepared to shoulder the liability risk.

This is pernicious. Even if self-driving cars saved thousands of lives — there were 33,808 motor vehicle deaths last year, though it’s worth noting that the number has been declining at a gentle slope over time — there is still a powerful cognitive bias against them.

Regulators are likely to be even more risk-averse than auto company executives. People are much more terrified of dying in novel ways than in mundane ones: that’s why we go to such ridiculous effort to make air travel safer despite the fact that air travel is already much safer than driving: the TSA gets blamed if a terrorist blows up an airplane. They don’t get blamed if the cost and inconvenience of flying causes 1000 extra people to die on the highways. By the same token, if regulators approve a self-driving car that goes on to kill someone, they’ll face a much bigger backlash than if their failure to approve self-driving cars lead to preventable deaths at the hands of human drivers. So even if the above factors all break in Ryan’s favor, I’m counting on the timidity of government regulators to drag the approval process out beyond 2026.

Like Tim, I hope he loses the bet. I’d pay more than $500 to hasten the arrival of self-driving cars as a mass market phenomenon. Yet believing that self-driving cars will be firmly entrenched by 2026 requires a great deal of confidence in the good sense of regulators and juries and in the pace of technological progress when it comes to the knotty problem of mimicking human intuition. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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