The Corner

Law & the Courts

Highway Robbery: Mandating Driverless Cars

In the course of a recent, strangely optimistic piece, Kevin Williamson (who appears to have forgotten that he’s a conservative: We’re meant to be the pessimists, Kevin) writes:

Autonomous cars won’t have to route around traffic jams because traffic jams will never form in the first place — that’s the value of the network. Countless man-hours now wasted sitting in traffic will be liberated. Fewer people will die in ambulances or waiting for fire trucks. Everything that moves between producers and consumers — which is to say, every consumer good and manufacturing input — will be transported more efficiently. Many of those problems are going to be solved by Millennials for whom owning a car and having strong feelings about it is a barbaric Boomer relic.

But watch those last three words. Watch that adjective. If a generation already showing some alarmingly authoritarian tendencies feels that something is “barbaric,” well . . . 

Then there is AEI’s James Pethokoukis, writing in The Week:

One recent gone-viral prediction comes from Bob Lutz, a former top executive and design guru at General Motors. In an essay for Automotive News, Lutz wrote that “in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.”

And that forecast, whatever its accuracy, may have inadvertently predicted the next great battleground of America’s culture wars.

Culture wars? If such legislation comes along, the battle will be about a great deal more than “culture.” Or it ought to be.

For all the irritations that can come with car ownership, the essence of the automobile is the autonomy that it brings. The ability it gives, so long as there’s money for gas, to just get up and go, when you want, where you want, the way you want.

Forget all the environmentalist grumbling, it’s that individual autonomy that has long made the auto so offensive to so many on the left.

Back to Pethokoukis:

Some social media users were thrilled by Lutz’s prediction, commenting on the technology’s potential safety aspects and how it could make commuting easier. But plenty of others were horrified at the prospect. Lots of “ . . . from my cold, dead hands” tweets, for instance, a reference to the well-known National Rifle Association slogan. For these people, such knee-jerk opposition to driverless cars is all about maintaining personal autonomy and withstanding yet another elite assault on their lifestyle.

Note the dismissive use of “knee-jerk” there. Actually, there are plenty of good, not-so-difficult to think through reasons why the idea of legislating away the driver-car is a very, very bad idea. And this is not about “elites” or “lifestyle,” it’s about the power of the state and how far it should be allowed to override the rights of the individual.


So you can see how this is going to play out, right? Just wait until Fox & Friends notices this issue, which means it will immediately land on President Trump’s radar. And then the tweets will begin. Maybe something like: “First guns, now the elites want to rip the steering wheel from your hands! Banning human drivers is wacko! I WON’T LET THEM!”

The implication is that no decent people would object to such a well-meaning idea as being denied the right to drive (for the good of society, of course). Only, to borrow a word, a “wacko” with a weakness for CAPITAL LETTERS could possibly argue that such a prohibition would be wrong.


Will it work? Of course there’s no constitutional right to manually drive your car, unlike the right to bear arms. So the freedom argument might not be as compelling as with guns.

I’m not sure about that. The “freedom argument” in this case is just as intellectually compelling (maybe even more so), but the right to drive may lack the legal protections that have (thankfully) kept the right to bear arms intact. That, however, is a different question.

There are, of course, good utilitarian arguments for driverless cars. Kevin has made some, James Pethokoukis makes others:

Then there’s the tremendous upside to driverless cars. Not everyone may personally know a gun victim, but who hasn’t been in a nasty car accident or doesn’t know someone who has? Widespread adoption of autonomous driving tech could reduce roadway deaths by at least 90 percent — saving some one million lives a year globally — making it one of the great public health achievements in human history. Now factor in enhanced mobility for the disabled and elderly, shorter commute times, and an end to all those wasted hours staring at the brake lights right in front of you.

If such cars do bring such practical benefits (and they could well), people will choose them for themselves, and only a stubborn minority — a minority too small to disrupt the smooth operation of a driverless traffic system — will stick with their retrograde jalopies. Even if we put the question of individual freedom to one side (and we should not), if driverless cars turn out to be as good as some predict they ought not to need compulsion to back them up.

But if there’s one thing we should have learned by now it is that systems are not as invulnerable as we’d like — imagine a mass hack.

And then there’s the question (give me a second while I adjust the tinfoil) of a universal off switch.

As a reminder:

The New York Times:

Tesla drivers in Florida got an unexpected assist this weekend as they scrambled to evade Hurricane Irma. Owners of certain Model S sedans and Model X S.U.V.s noticed that the battery capacity of their electric cars had increased, giving them as much as 40 extra miles of range to outrun the deluge. Range anxiety — the fear that an electric vehicle will run out of charge before reaching its destination — can be magnified in emergency situations.

Tesla confirmed that it had remotely enabled a free software upgrade for vehicles in the path of the storm, motivated by one customer who requested the change while making evacuation plans. The free upgrade will expire on Saturday . . . 

Most other auto manufacturers “sell vehicles that are incapable of learning and improving and are highly vulnerable to obsolescence,” Adam Jonas, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, wrote in July. But not Tesla, which has become an industry leader in what’s known as over-the-air vehicle upgrades — the ability to make instant fixes without being anywhere near the car.

It’s an efficient method: Wirelessly communicating improvements to a digitally equipped vehicle means that customers don’t have to come in for every small tuneup. But some updates, like a strict speed cap that Tesla rolled back this year, also raise concerns about consumer privacy and control.

You think?

Meanwhile Pethokoukis sees other benefits from going all driverless:

For instance: Tech analyst Benedict Evans points out that gas stations will be going bye bye, just like the combustion engine. And that means big changes in American smoking habits since half of U.S. tobacco sales happen at gas stations, and are often impulse buys. “Car crashes kill 35,000 people a year in the U.S.A., but tobacco kills 500,000,” Evans writes.

And so the infantilization of adult Americans is set to continue. Can’t be trusted to drive. Can’t be trusted with stores that supply them with the products that they would like (however medically unwisely) to consume. The slippery slope is real, and we’re not to be allowed anywhere near a handbrake.


So the evidence and data support moving to driverless cars ASAP, even if that means only the robots get to drive.

But notions of individual autonomy do not.

Driverless cars seem promising, but they must be designed to share the road with cars in which humans are at the wheel.

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