Why driverless cars have so much more potential than subways

driverless4.jpgIn a nutshell, they build upon early 21st century technology rather than piggyback on early 20th century technology. That's really what subways still rely on - underground tubes funneling folks from here to there. Very cool in 1918. But these days they take decades to complete, cost crazy amounts of money, and don't do much to relieve congestion. Driver-less or autonomous cars, however, change the dynamics of transportation without changing habits or preferences. In addition, they're likely to reduce traffic accidents (and with that, fatalities), and improve traffic congestion (cars could drive two to three times more densely). While Google has been leading the way in driverless technology, the automakers are heavily involved as well - as I bring up on KPCC's Business Update:

Lacter: Keep in mind that much of the technology in driverless cars is just an expansion of what's currently available on many conventional vehicles. That includes letting the car handle parallel parking, having it drive a safe distance from the car ahead (and then putting on the brakes if you're getting too close), and using the same kind of collision-avoidance technology that's standard equipment on all commercial aircraft, so you'll be warned, for example, when you're backing out of a space that traffic's approaching).

Steve Julian: But, you can buy an electric car. You can't buy a driverless one.

Lacter: True, but they might be available by, say, the end of the decade. And, it really changes the dynamics of transportation by reducing the number of accidents because electrical sensors are much more reliable than the human kind. It also reduces traffic congestion because machines would do a better job of navigating the amount of space between cars, and the beauty is you'd be able to use the same basic roadway grid. Very exciting stuff.

Even so, it's a work in progress, especially on the legal front. Last week Gov. Brown signed into law legislation that calls on the DMV to draft regulations so that motorists will actually be able to use driver-less cars. From NPR:

If a self-driving car runs a red light and gets caught, who gets the ticket? "I don't know -- whoever owns the car, I would think. But we will work that out," Gov. Brown said at the signing event for California's bill to legalize and regulate the robotic cars. "That will be the easiest thing to work out." Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was also at the ceremony, jokingly said "self-driving cars don't run red lights." That may be true, but Bryant Walker Smith, who teaches a class at Stanford Law School this fall on the law supporting self-driving cars, says eventually one of these vehicles will get into an accident. When it does, he says, it's not clear who will pay. "The question becomes: If you put a 15-year-old in the vehicle and press the go button, are you -- the person sitting at home -- the driver, or is it the person in the car?" Walker Smith says. Or is it the company that wrote the software? Or the automaker that built the car?

More by Mark Lacter:
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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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