The Self-Driving Catch-22

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There are laws in many states forbidding “distracted” driving – but what about the laws that encourage it?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given GM – and presumably, other car companies, too – the go ahead to offer cars that can drive themselves for extended periods while the “driver” doesn’t.

GM’s system – marketed as SuperCruise – will be available next year in certain Cadillac models, including the CT6 sedan. It’s an advanced form of adaptive or “intelligent” cruise control that steers the car as well as maintains speed – accelerating and braking as needed with the ebb and flow of traffic, no input required from the “driver.”super-snnoze

Who can distract himself with other things.

Which is, of course, the only reason for bothering with this technology. The “driver” doesn’t have to. He can nod off. Text. Space out. Have a chat with his passengers. Maybe watch a YouTube video. That’s the sell.

Ok, great!

But if the person behind the wheel (assuming there’s still a wheel) is also still expected to pay attention to the road and be ready to step in as the driver, it kind of defeats the point – doesn’t it?   

But that is precisely what is expected.nixon-behind-the-wheel

It’s a hilarious juxtaposition, given the endless lecturing about “safety” emanating from NHTSA – the federal busybody-at-gunpoint agency that, somehow, acquired a parental interest (and parental rights) in every adult American.

Naturally, GM’s SuperCruise is fitted with a bevy of bells and whistles that are supposed to rouse the asleep-at-the-wheel “driver” when it becomes necessary for him to … drive. If the “driver” doesn’t wake up – perhaps he is sleeping too soundly and fails to notice the bells and whistles – the car will automatically turn on its emergency blinkers and slow itself down.

Super Cruise, GM’s semi-automated driving technology, will come to market in a new 2017 Cadillac vehicle.
Super Cruise, GM’s semi-automated driving technology, will come to market in a new 2017 Cadillac vehicle.

This will probably not be much help if a split-second intervention becomes necessary. As, for example, when a self-driving Tesla drove itself broadside into a big rig that had unexpectedly turned in its path. Which the Tesla’s “driver” didn’t notice in time.

And there, as the saying goes, is the rub.

A driver either is – or he isn’t.

There is no in-between.

It is not a part-time job.

To whatever extent a car drives itself, the driver is necessarily less involved. Less is expected of him. He is encouraged to be passive, inattentive.

To let the car handle things.asleep-3

This has been in process for a long time. Anti-lock brakes, for instance. They have been standard in pretty much all cars built since the late 1990s. Before ABS, drivers learned to fear skids – and loss of control. They tended to maintain a safe following distance, the motivation being that if you didn’t and the car up ahead slowed unexpectedly and suddenly, it was probable that you’d skid right into his trunk.

With ABS, people know the car won’t skid – and so tend to tailgate more than they used to and to drive not so much aggressively (a smear word used to bunch fast drivers who can drive in with reckless drivers, who can’t) as they do foolishly. See, for instance, all the jacked-up 4×4 SUVs in the ditch after a snowstorm. They over-drive the physics of traction, expecting the ABS (and traction control, there’s another one) to keep them on the road.

Sometimes, it doesn’t – because technology has its limits, just like human beings.super-cruise-4

One of the limits human beings have is reaction time. It takes “x” seconds for a human to notice a change in the driving environment and then react to it. There is a lag even when the human is paying very close attention – for example, a drag racer waiting for the Christmas tree to go green. But reaction times increase when the driver isn’t paying attention.

Imagine our hypothetical drag racer nodding off or texting or fiddling with the stereo’s buttons instead of watching for the green. What do you suppose will happen to his reaction time?

It’s no different on the street.

A driver who has turned over the driving to SuperCruise (or whatever) will by definition be paying less attention, so when something happens that requires his attention, the time it takes for him to become aware of that thing and react to it will necessarily increase. If that thing is something that requires a split-second decision (these things happen out on the road sometimes) the extra second or four it takes for our “driver” to resume the helm may be a second or four too

This, arguably, constitutes a threat to the safety of everyone – not just the no-longer-driving “driver.”

Yet NHTSA – Uncle’s “agency” charged with ensuring the “safety” of all us children, who are too weak-brained to know what’s good for us, let alone do it without being prodded – takes no issue with technology that, in a very real sense, is far more a threat to people’s safety than allowing them to disable their mandated-by-government air bags.

If I crash my airbag-defeated car, I harm no one but myself. But if a “driver” who isn’t – because he’s turned the job over to SuperCruise – fails to notice the light up ahead’s gone red and T-bones me because he didn’t take over in time – then I have been hurt by him.self-driving-wreck

More accurately, by Uncle – by NHTSA. Which took the decision to put my “safety” at risk (and yours, too) because the regulatory ayatollahs within have decided it’s ok to do so in order to encourage self-driving car technology, which the regulatory ayatollahs favor.

They do not favor – will not allow – me (or you) to drive around without our seatbelts on, or ride a motorcycle without a helmet – neither thing having any effect on other people, neither thing putting any other person at risk of harm.

But technology that encourages passive/distracted – and delayed reaction – driving?


The first person whose car gets smashed as a result of this should not only have a tort claim against the “driver” but also against GM and – much more so – NHTSA, which eggs this business on.

But you cannot sue the regulatory ayatollahs (nor the enforcers of their fatwas) personally for the harms they cause. Because of a neat doctrine they invented called sovereign immunity.

That needs to change.

If I can be sued for damages because I nodded off at the wheel and my car plows into a minivan carrying a bunch of kids, why, pray, should the non-driver of a self-driving minivan who fails to react in time and plows into me be immune from the same sort of liability?

Why shouldn’t the company that made such a car be liable? How about the regulatory ayatollahs who encouraged the technology? Who consciously chose to put our lives at risk for the sake of their agenda?

And they ask me why I drink… .

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  1. I always try to understand which group benefits from regulatory actions such as airbags and now approval/advocacy of self-driving cars.
    I suspect that the insurance industry, which has significant influence over regulators, has played a significant role in airbag and self-driving car regulations. They would perceive that their costs will go down due to reduced injury costs (probably true for airbags), and will lobby the regulators for decisions favorable to their financial positions, regardless whether or not the regulations actually have the expected effect, and regardless of the increased cost of cars to consumers. This general tendency on the part of the insurance business is no doubt aggravated by the effect of very low interest rates on their profitability.

    • Agreed, bsi –

      The key “driver” here is the insurance mandate. Take that away, and the power would – properly – return to where it belongs: The hands of the people buying the cars.

  2. Let’s ‘kick it up a notch.’ Can anyone out there name 1 thing the federal gunvermin does that is both constitutional (as read by someone with common sense, not a senile being in a black robe) and helpful enough that people would voluntarily pay for it?
    If we must have gunvermin (and I did say if), let’s keep it as local as possible so as to be more controllable.

  3. Eric,

    It is a fine line you are walking here. Your argument smacks of the same argument the left uses when talking about firearms. We can not hold manufacturers responsible because someone misuses their tech. Libertarianism does not provide for guilt by association…

    • Hi Matt,

      See my earlier reply (below) to RG.

      I think a big difference here is that unlike a gun functioning as designed (but used recklessly) in this case we are dealing with a technology that can err without any fault due the owner/driver.

      A gun does not shoot itself. It cannot redirect fire contrary to the owner’s aiming point.

      But a self-driving car can plow through a red light.

      My main objection, though, is that we’re being herded – and yes, that’s exactly the word – to a kind of Elio future in which a skill such as driving becomes not only unnecessary but effectively forbidden.

      You know as well as I that the state will mandate this when it becomes feasible.

      For “safety.”

      Then we’ll very passively be taken where we’re headed at a pace and in a manner determined by some Clover bureaucrat.

  4. Allen Funt of Candid Camera would have been out of business in a world of driverless cars.

    As a 33rd Degree Luddite I dislike the idea of driverless cars, even though they’ll likely save a lot of lives (and take a few as well). More technology, more expense, more use ’em and scrap ’em (can’t fix ’em) consumables, and worst of all more susceptibility to hackers and government surveillance. Imagine some snot-faced 14-year-old in Ceylon hacking your car and driving you into a tree. Or Big Brother constantly monitoring everywhere you go, how hard you stop, how fast you drive (if you even have a choice of speed), and able to control or disable your vehicle at any time.

    We will find, I think, that eventually technology will not free us in the sense that we understand freedom now but will enslave us. It might be a gilded, comfortable cage, but a cage nonetheless.

    • Ross, we are in tune!

      I hate the suffocating tendency of technology. I mean, I am a fan of electricity and indoor plumbing and all. But I want to control the technology I use – and not be forced to use it. It tends toward being overwhelming because it’s Too Much, Too Ubiquitous, Too Expensive. We are to a very real degree infantilized by it as well as made more and more dependent by it.

      This is why – whether I go El Camino or Goldwing – my next ride will not have a got-damned computer, black box, air bags or any of it.

      It will be entirely under my control. And I will pay cash for the pig fucker and own it – to the extent that is possible these days.

      • eric, I guess you haven’t ordered your Amazon Echo yet. We use the 1st generation of it. Take a pencil, pen, magic marker, felt tip pen(you get the idea)and write on a piece of paper, lined or unlined, the back of your tax statement, etc. We call it “the list”. It doesn’t play your music via bluetooth but everything else around does so it seems a bit redundant. You can’t shout at it to any advantage which keeps things quiet. Nobody shows up at your door from Amazon with a roll of TP or a pack of condoms but that little list will hold all those things and more. It does a great many more things than an Echo even though you have to use hand muscles instead of your mouth. That’s a good thing for those of us who think everyone runs off at the mouth too much anyway.

        That list can be most any size too and you never have to wonder when whatever is on it will arrive since the list leaves that to you. Ever tried to buy a pair of boots with Amazon? That’ll get you back to “the list” in a hurry and Shoe Carnival will thank you with a discount or two, esp. if you want a pair of tenny diggers too or some house slippers. When our list has “take CJ into the vet for stitches”, probably Amazon won’t show up to do this for you. “The list” might say something like bourbon and beer, a non-Amazon thing I’m guessing.

        That list might say might say “nails” and “roll of copper door seal” that probably won’t arrive either. Many advantages of “the list” is it won’t care if there is a power outage or whether you drop it or have to remove it from CJ’s mouth or take it away from a group of cats doing their worst. If you leave it outside it probably still works if it gets rained on vs the Echo that definitely won’t. The #1 advantage of the list is you can put it in your pocket and not even feel it. Once you feel like “the list” has fulfilled its mission, you can just drop it in the trash or wipe your butt with it in an emergency and your budget won’t ever know the difference. Here is where insurance comes in handy. They want your bidness so much, just like banks, they give out these little books with lined paper that you can make a hundred lists with and while you are paying for it somehow, opting out of taking their freebie(no such thing)won’t save YOU any money. I’ve written lists on feed sacks and napkins. Neither ADM or DQ has complained of my dual useage of their product.

        • My list is on my phone. It keeps in sync with my Exchange server that I rent from Microsoft for actual money. By giving them money instead of wanting something for free, they agree to not snoop around on my Exchange server.

          It’s a pretty good deal, a few bucks a year for encrypted email, calendar and notes. No advertising, excellent spam filtering and my own domain name. And again, no one snooping around my server.

      • I’ve long admired the Amish for that very reason: they pick and choose what technology they want in their lives. They’re very careful about what they use and consider how it affects them; they don’t eagerly swill every new piece of engineering that comes down the pike.

  5. The only way to make self-driving cars workable (IMO) is for every vehicle on the road to be self-driving and connected to a central grid, so that big brother/Google can guide traffic in a safe and predictable manner.
    Just to clarify: it is not a scenario that I am looking forward to

  6. Eric,

    You pose the question, “Why shouldn’t the company that made such a car be liable?”

    I hate to break it to you Eric, but the company is a fictional person. (While I’m pretty sure you know that, I don’t know why your brain seems to ignore the notion.)

    I have not read this yet –

    But I will, even though it is preaching to the choir for me.

    You, on the other-hand, really do need to acknowledge the evil that corporations are. I know you think that individuals should be responsible for their actions.

    Because you might as well be writing about the Catch-22 with Lucy and Charlie Brown. Why can’t Charlie sue that fucking whore Lucy for moving the football? Bitch does it every time!

    Save the Bombardier –

    • Hi T,

      I am actually working on something serious – more than a mere rant – in re this topic. This business of corporations and some related issues/problems vis-a-vis Libertarian morality, as I see it.

  7. … I have read Eric’s essay’s on self-driving technology before…and I think he does his readers a disservice. Many of his readers come to his site to learn about …”what is”…or…”what’s coming”…as opposed to…”what Eric Doesn’t like”. While I can agree with Eric on all the safety and technology points he makes, and fully agree the technology is no where near ready for mass consumption and the law of unintended consequences…I see no pint in making fun of potential users of such technology. At the age of 49, I was diagnosed as having genetic epilepsy, suffering from “unobserved seizures” my entire life, and I drove off a 200 foot cliff at 70 mph, even though I had already given up driving. I essentially had a seizure, drove 7 miles through the mountains, drove off the cliff…and have no recollection of having done any of that. In light of the fact that I no longer drive, I would love to see…(and learn about)…the dispassionate development of this technology regardless of how Eric feels about it personally. I agree it is not trustworthy in it’s current developmental stage, but then again neither were airplane in 1916. I am very interested in how these cars are supposed to work, how the technology has changed, continues to improve and how they are working to make them more dependable, safe and secure for all involved. They are the future. And for someone who used to live, work, drive and fly all over the world, I look forward to the day I can regain some degree of independence through this technology. In fact, I actually called Medicare and asked if they would cover the cost of a self-driving car as a “medical aid”. The lady took my question seriously, looked up the code, found nothing …but said she’d pass the idea along to her supervisors. Ha!
    RJ O’Guillory

    • Hi RJ,

      I don’t oppose any technology as such. This includes self-driving cars. What I don’t like about them was elaborated in the piece. That the government will allow (god, how I hate that) palpably risky/unsafe technology when it suits their agenda. Meanwhile, I am not allowed to not put my own self at risk by not having air bags – which by the way are also risky/dangerous!

      Also, I strongly suspect this technology will eventually be mandated. And – os others have observed – that will entail banning cars that do not self-drive.

      This whole thing is a mess because of government. Because of this business of “public” (government) roads and government dictating policy to us all.

      Here’s how it ought to break down: Roads privately owned; the owner to determine who may use and under what conditions. Cars built according to market (buyer) demand; no one forced to buy any type of car or technology. We each “do our own thing.”

      What’s not to like about that?

    • Hi George,

      Yup. And pilots are much higher-skilled/trained than the average driver. They can multi-task, or at least, can do so more effectively than the average driver.

  8. What does Eric supposed about the hypothetical where the self-driving car will avoid hitting pedestrians in a way that endangers the occupants of the car? Would you dangerously swerve to avoid some random child and risk killing you and your family? I bet most wouldn’t but the self-driving car might.Clover

    • Grammar and Cloverism aside, this is a question that engineers and “ethicists” are working on for the self-driving cars. The decision algorithms will be as the code for the Apollo mission is to the code for Pong.

      Do you risk 2 passengers to save 3 pedestrians? Do you assume that 3 passengers will survive since they are armored and air-bagged, so take on a tree instead of hitting one pedestrian? How about 2? What if it is only a utility pole, which hopefully will break where a tree won’t? Must you factor in actuarial tables… babies are more important than grandparents?

      All that sounds totally idiotic. But it is going on right now to some degree or another. Track, speed, lights, and intersections are are “easy” part in making these things work. (At least until the GPS glitches!)

      “Software updates are available. Your automobile will be parked in the next available safe spot until those are installed!”

      • Of course someone somewhere in some NGO is working that all out as we speak. Everything goes back to optimizing the return on the human herd.

        Anyone out there who doesn’t believe me? Look up George Pullman. Yes, the Pullman rail car company of Chicago.

  9. Its just a step towards outlawing human drivers. It will cause just enough problems that new regulations will be needed. And of course those regulations, like most regulations won’t actually solve that problem, but create an array of new ones, which of course need regulating……

    The government has never really liked the freedom of movement the automobile has given the general public. It was so much easier to control people in the horse and buggy era, since you can’t go far quickly. Trains of course are easier to control as few people actually own them and they only go a handful of places due to the inflexibility of rail.

    According to some of my older friends, we once were close to light planes being as normal for the average person as a personal car (1950’s-60’s). But the federal government stepped in and regulated that away by making it too expensive. So private planes are the playthings of only very wealthy people.

    Ever wonder why driving isn’t a “right” but a privilege? Or its nearly impossible to stop a search of your “private” auto by armed government agents? A privilege it will someday take back. Its whittling it away piece by piece, by making it more expensive and annoying for example. Many people will be more then willing to give it up at that point.

    Don’t get me wrong. Free market self driving cars would likely be pretty awesome, affordable and most importantly optional. Government regulated self driving cars are going to not be any of those.

        • Hey, sex in the back seat at the speed of Clover! That’s a possibility!

          But I can see it now: as technology takes over more and more of the things we do, there will be less and less for us to do physically and over many millennia the need for useless appendages and other bodily functions will be bred out of us so that we are all mind power, heads with faces that have the power to levitate and move of their own accord. Heads can fall in love, kiss and have mind sex, and no worries about pregnancy, abortion and unwanted babies. So many possibilities! Onward!!

          • Hey, sex in the back seat at the speed of Clover!

            Does one necessarily follow the other. I think I can swing the car part of it……..

  10. Mostly playing devil’s advocate here…

    I’ve been messing around with quadcopter small unmanned aerial vehicles, aka “drones.” Most of you probably think of them as toys meant for amateur spying and aerial trespass. But there is a growing business in these devices, for things like radio tower inspections and aerial photography.

    The FAA has issued a fatwa requiring commercial UAVs to be tested and licensed. The test is far simpler than a commercial pilot license, but there is one. Note that quadcopters are sold to anyone who wants to buy one, and the registration process for the equipment is the same no matter if you are flying as an amateur or a professional. The main difference is that people who pass the test get to fly in certain controlled airspace that amateurs don’t. I have decided even if I don’t pursue quadcopter piloting as a career I will get licensed anyway.

    The current crop of quads are extremely automated. They can be programmed to fly to a given point in space and sit there, can actively track a “target” and can fly a pre-programmed path, some with accuracy down to a centimeter. Most have an onboard database of restricted airspace, nor will not allow flight above a 400′ ceiling. Clearly the UAV pilot is more an operator than actual pilot, at least on the large commercial units.

    I’m sure there will be incidents where people do very stupid things with these flying machines. The majority of these incidents will be when someone with more money than brains gets one and doesn’t bother to engage their brain before flying. Because (for now) the public is anti-UAV I’m sure the incidents will be blown out of proportion in the mainstream news sources (who I’m sure see these as a threat to their dominance of the skies with their expensive traffic ‘copters). This will, of course lead to more regulation and more difficulty obtaining these devices. This is why I intend to get a commercial license ASAP before the window slams shut.

    But back to the point. One of the interesting things about the UAE test is that while it does put most of the focus on reading maps and knowing the airspace, it also spends a lot of time stressing situational awareness, aircraft maintenance, and pilot fitness. It is something I didn’t really give much thought when I started thinking about UAEs and flying. It really got me thinking about automation in general and what it will really mean. Yes, we can get distracted (and many will) as we automate our transportation, but as long as you’re sitting in the driver’s seat you should be the one in charge, and you should continue to be liable. Yes, the driver’s test will need to change (hell, I think it needs a good updating now), and the activities will change. But situational awareness and reaction to unexpected events will continue to be the most important function of a driver.

    • “Because (for now) the public is anti-UAV I’m sure the incidents will be blown out of proportion in the mainstream news sources (who I’m sure see these as a threat to their dominance of the skies with their expensive traffic ‘copters).”

      That is exactly how we got the “regulation” requiring all of us to register our RC airplanes if they weigh over 8.8 ounces. With severe penalties for not doing so. Think of the quantity of explosive my 19 ounce foam model could deliver! Things have just quieted down for now. Fortunately, this may end as CB licensing ended. Too many either ignore it or are ignorant of the need to register. But, flying conspicuously at a local club, I caved in and registered. (Hell, I am on so many lists now that when they come to get me there will be a shootout between the authorities trying to decide who gets me first!)

      I think civilian, general aviation, is the current media target since the FAA is actually thinking about easing the annual-physical requirements for healthy people to fly light aircraft. The majority of planes crash because of pilot error, not pilot illness (aircraft failure is extremely rare). We can’t let freedom get its ugly nose in that tent. How many light-plane stories hit the “mainstream web” each week?

      Mencken explains it succinctly: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

      You are absolutely correct about situational awareness. If two people home their quad-copters to the same GPS coordinates, there will be a problem. They will soon be required to add RADAR or sophisticated optics to prevent that. As we were always cautious when navigating with GPS on our boats, if there is a reef (tree for an RC model) in the path there will be big problems.

      • In my research I came across a youtube video by a guy who was fined for flying a drone in Yellowstone National Park. The NPS discovered a video he posted to youtube and sent him a citation and summons to appear in court. The guy had to pay $800 or so (reduced from over a grand). Talk about scaring the public! Unless you’re running for president, ignorance is no excuse.

        But of course the reason for the UAV ban in national parks is because of a few people who didn’t see their “toy” as a potentially hazardous object that could inflict damage or injury. The bureaucrat is paid to sit around and think of all the possible worst cases and proactively act accordingly. In case of hard evidence examples, he quickly can impose overzealous restrictions and outright bans on activity.

        Again, it comes down to not being an idiot. In a world where it seems useful idiocy is the desired outcome, maybe just banning everything is the best policy. (sarcasm) I for one think there’s more to life than sitting around watching it go by and being an expert in one very narrowly defined skill. But I’m pretty sure I’m the exception.

      • Arylioa, you say (Hell, I am on so many lists now that when they come to get me there will be a shootout between the authorities trying to decide who gets me first!)

        I feel the same way. If competing predators ever come again concurrently it might turn into a full battle. Naturally, we’ll be between the opposing forces.

        It reminds me of two groups vying for the same gas pump in the movie Syriana. One of them pops off a round and then it’s a full blown street shoot-out with only the innocent civilians in the street getting hit.

  11. I don’t see how the gunvermin will allow self driving cars. They’ll have to give up too much money and control. Self driving cars won’t speed, blow through stop signs, or violate any other revenue generating rules. Porky won’t have a legitimate reason to pull over those who look “suspicious”. And what about DUI? If I’m in the passenger seat and the car drives itself, why can’t I be drunk? For that matter, should I even need a drivers license? Why not stick my 12 year old kid in the back seat and send him off to school without me? No, they’re gonna have to establish “rules” to make sure they maintain the same amount of money and power. Should be very interesting to see what those rules will be.

    • They will find plenty of reasons to stop you. And you won’t be able to run either, they will have control over your car, they will push a button and you’re pulled over.

      I can guarantee they won’t allow you to send your kid alone, or run it empty of people, or use it to pick up things without a person with. Which sucks as that is one of the cool things about self driving cars, being able to save that time.

    • Oh ye of little faith! You will need an enhanced license to be in a autonomous vehicle. You will be more responsible. And when they “accidentally” publish the serial numbers and passwords to “your” car, they will make YOU responsible for it when a third party runs it into a school playground. The DUI problem will be taken care of by finishing the reintroduction of prohibition. This time it won’t be possible to have speakeasies, since so many already gave up their rights because “they weren’t doing anything wrong”. And putting your 12 year old in the back seat will be considered child abuse, especially if you put him in the wrong kind of car seat. Don’t we all know by now that the only freedom we have is what we use and defend?


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