Herman: Driverless cars and the end of the driver’s license?


Today, a simple question: Should the state require you to have a license for something you don’t do? Of course not. Maybe.

If you’re not doing brain surgery, you shouldn’t need a brain surgeon license. Ditto for plumbing and pest control (for pay).

So what’s going to happen when driving no longer involves driving?

Sadly, though inevitably, we have the first traffic death involving a semi-self-driving car. It happened in Florida in May in a Tesla in its semi-autonomous Autopilot mode. Coincidentally, Joshua Brown’s death came as I’d been pondering questions about our driverless vehicle future. Looks like the technology could be ready within five years. It could take lawmakers and rule-makers longer than that to figure out what laws and rules we’ll need.

Removing humans from a situation generally reduces human error. The National Safety Council’s 2014 statistics show we had 35,400 road deaths, with alcohol, distracted driving and speeding the dominant causes. Humans, so endlessly imperfect.

So will you need a driver’s license when you have a fully self-driving car? Why would you need a license to do something you’re not doing?

Embedded in that question is whether self-driving cars would have controls needed to let a passenger become a driver. Seems like we should never eliminate the option of hitting brakes, kind of like we can do to override cruise control.

Some experts say otherwise. Patrick Lin, who looks at such things at Cal Poly, told IEEE (“the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity”), “Humans aren’t hardwired to sit and monitor a system for long periods of time and then quickly react properly when an emergency happens.”

And Google’s Chris Urmson, director of that firm’s self-driving car program, told the U.S. Senate in March that Google is working toward taking humans out of the driving process, because they “can’t always be trusted to dip in and out of the task of driving when the car is encouraging them to sit back and relax.”

So, no driving, no license?

Next: When vehicles drive themselves, will we need any limits (age, disability, etc.) on the person behind where the wheel used to be?

Potential upsides: Increased mobility for those who can’t drive, including older folks headed to the doctor. And will we be able to send the kids to school by putting them in the vehicle, pressing “school” and saving them from hours of listening to classic rock or NPR? Dicey for younger kids? A plus (from a parent’s standpoint) for teens?

How about a driverless nap mode for little kids who sleep better in a moving vehicle? And what will the law say about drinking while not driving a car that’s driving itself?

Potential downsides: More traffic. More unemployed truck drivers.

Here’s another potential problem, raised by Ben Wear, our esteemed transportation writer. Two self-driving cars arrive simultaneously at the supermarket. There’s only one parking spot. Hmm. Would the vehicles be programmed to make obscene gestures toward each other?

In addition to legal questions, there are ethical ones, pointedly pointed out in a Science magazine article: “Autonomous vehicles should reduce traffic accidents, but they will sometimes have to choose between two evils, such as running over pedestrians or sacrificing themselves and their passenger to save the pedestrians.” Gulp.

I like driving. I’d miss the joyful wonderment of the best daily reminder that we can indeed all live together in peace: The miracle of the four-way stop. I’m constantly amazed at how well those work.

Random thought No. 1: The end of driver’s licenses could be the beginning of new problems involving voter ID. I continue to have the simple solution to that — photos on voter registration cards.

Random thought No. 2: Somewhere back in time a columnist raised questions about those newfangled self-driving elevators.



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