A technophobe’s rumination on driverless cars

Posted by William K. Thayer | Apr 03, 2016 | 0 Comments

What holds the future?

Driverless cars look to be a big part of the near future.

In the blink of an eye, it seems, the past becomes the future.  Dick Tracy's wrist-radio becomes the Apple Watch.  The IBM computer transitions into the modern cell phone.  Henry Ford's Model T evolves inexorably into Google's prototype driverless car.

In the decade before I was born, the comic book character Dick Tracy began sporting a two-way wrist radio disguised as a wristwatch in Chester Gould's popular comic strip.  In March of last year, less than seven decades later, Apple unveiled its Apple Watch product, likewise worn as a wristwatch, that does nearly everything but eat your dinner for you.

Early computers, with their “birth” attributed largely to the World War II era, and which took up entire rooms, began to catch the public eye in the 1960s.  They helped put a man on the moon.  In 1997 an IBM supercomputer nicknamed “Deep Blue” beat one of the greatest human chess masters of all time, Garry Kasparov, in a six game match.  Today, an IPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S5 that fits in the palm of one's hand has many, many times the computing power of the IBM supercomputers of old, as measured by gigaFLOPS (FLoating-point Operations Per Second).  And although it may not land us on the moon or beat us at chess, the smartphone of today as we all know is not only our wireless phone, but serves admirably as our camera, mini-computer, navigation system, and even advises us on what restaurant is closest by and most suited for our tastes at any given moment.

So how might the future look?  Will we someday simply root for the car itself and not any particular race car driver as spectators attending the Indy 500? “

Change is inevitable, and history confirms that changes in technology descend upon us much more rapidly than we seem to be able to anticipate, or even comprehend, at times.

Which is why, on my brain today, is the concept of driverless cars and the fascinating question of how near we may be to driverless cars replacing our cars that we now operate as human drivers on the freeways and lesser streets of the North American continent.  My initial intrigue with this topic is, are we doing this because of safety considerations, or just because we can?  Because it involves fairly radical change, in many ways that I'm not sure many people have given much thought to yet.

The fact is, the technology is already here.  A number of auto manufacturers, Tesla, Nissan, Volkswagen, Toyota, and General Motors among them, have been gradually developing automated technology and implementing it into their new vehicles being sold today.  And Google, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are already testing driverless cars in a small number of cities to demonstrate that they can be safe, actually even safer than human drivers.  Google for example, has for several years been testing a fleet of 56 self-driving cars on the streets of Mountain View, California, Austin, Texas, and Kirkland, Washington.  Its autonomous cars have already logged almost 1,500,000 miles, with a person acting solely as a backup sitting in the driver's seat, with remarkable success.  Test cities for other manufactures include San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh.

But whether we can accept and trust that machines will navigate us around safely merely as passengers may hold back this new age of technological advancement.  We are a “skeptical public”, as a recent Oregonian article (discussed in more detail below) notes, and seem to have a reluctance to trust machines to handle complex tasks safely and reliably in many instances.  Why is that?  Maybe it is instinct, our inherent fear of the unknown, or just plain common sense.  Or is it a subtle but learned suspicion shaped by the sensationalism of Hollywood?  Movies over the years could certainly be accused of having planted and stoked a fear of machines and artificial intelligence.

Perhaps you recall how the initially benevolent computer named Hal, the “brains” of the mothership from Stanley Kubrick's impressive 1968 movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, ultimately went rogue and began to make decisions based on its own self-interests, rather than acting to serve its human wards as it had been designed to do.  Or the essential plot from the 1984 James Cameron movie “The Terminator”, where the machines of the future had taken over the world and subjugated all human beings into slavery.  And, most recently, the alluring female robot character from Alex Garland's 2015 movie “Ex Machina”, Ava (portrayed by actress Alicia Vikander), who ultimately dispatched her creator, escaped confinement, and slipped out to blend into the world of living and breathing humanity.

Whatever the cause, perhaps our distrust is overblown, per statistics published in an article in a recent Saturday's Business section of the Oregonian, entitled “Just how safe must driverless cars be?” (March 26, 2016, at page C11).  According to it, surprisingly, the preliminary testing results seem to be pretty favorable, in terms of low crash rates, for driverless cars.  For example, a Virginia Tech University study commissioned by Google found that its autonomous cars crashed only 3.2 times per million miles, compared with 4.2 times for human drivers.  But, as the Oregonian article notes, that study had limitations, including an arbitrary add-on to the data for the human accidents based on an assumption that the humans may not have reported all of their minor accidents to the police.  In any event, quoting from the Oregonian article, “‘We should be concerned about automated vehicles', says Brian Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies the technology.  ‘But we should be terrified about today's drivers.'”

Why?  Again, per the Oregonian article, “Government statistics show that human mistakes are responsible for 94% of the 33,000 traffic fatalities each year.  Autonomous cars won't get drowsy, distracted or drunk, so in theory they could eliminate those mistakes and save an estimated 31,000 lives a year.  But as a Valentine's Day fender-bender involving a Google autonomous Lexus and a public bus shows, cars that drive themselves can make mistakes.  ‘We cannot expect any technology, any solution to be perfect all the time', says Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has led autonomous vehicle research for 15 years.  ‘We live in a very uncertain world where lots of things happen.'”

And of course, when you think about the seven decades or so over which computers and other modern technological wonders have been maturing, the autonomous car technology is just coming out of its infant stages.  I can only imagine how efficient, sophisticated and impressive driverless cars will be thirty or forty years from now (although I will no doubt be dead and gone by then) given what science and mankind have done with other forms of technology and machinery over recent history.  That a driverless car can ultimately be made relatively safe, and no doubt affordable as well, seems now more to be a matter of time – a question of “when” rather than “if”.  That it will be accepted and trusted with our lives is, however, as alluded to above, yet to be seen.

But in the event that the technology takes hold and driverless cars actually do become commonplace, a myriad of other questions arise.  How will it impact various industries and the economy as a whole?  Can automobile manufacturers, and the automotive parts and mechanical repair industries, adapt and survive?  Will taxicab companies and operators be put out of business?  What changes will have to be made by federal, state, and local governments to freeways and streets and perhaps even to public transportation systems to accommodate the new wave of driverless vehicles on the highways, and at what cost to the taxpayer?  What impact will such a massive change to the automotive and transportation industries have upon the unemployment rate, and how many jobs will be lost as yet another machine ends up stealing the jobs of American workers?

As an attorney, a significant concern for me is also the question of how will the changeover to driverless cars on the road impact our civil justice system and insurance industry.  Our present system assigns fault and responsibility to the negligent party in an automobile collision situation, and heavily relies upon the insurance industry to indemnify the culpable person so that they can pay just compensation to the innocent injured party after an accident occurs.  When the precious human cargo of a driverless car is injured or killed, who will be responsible?  Even if the machines end up improving safety overall, nothing is perfect, and there unfortunately will continue to be casualties of transportation and travel.  What will happen to Farmers, State Farm, Allstate, Safeco, Geico, Pemco, and the commercial insurance carriers in the business of selling auto and freight carrier insurance policies?  Insurance pricing and types of coverage will undoubtedly experience a dramatic upheaval, if there even remains in place any need in the system for the sale of auto insurance.  And on a level more personal to what I do for a living as a partner in a boutique law firm that pretty much exclusively handles personal injury and wrongful death cases, many of which arise from automobile and truck accidents caused by negligent human drivers, will there continue to be any need for plaintiff and defense attorneys, and courts and juries, to evaluate and litigate such tort claims?  Certainly if the reason we are headed there, to a world of driverless cars replacing the American transportation system in place now, is really in the interests of safety, the cause is not only laudable but also absolutely necessary.  On the other hand, if some other motive is driving the experimentation with this futuristic technology, maybe we should hit the pause button for a bit and let our better judgment catch up with our technological capabilities.

So how might the future look?  Will we someday simply root for the car itself and not any particular race car driver as spectators attending the Indy 500?  Are driverless planes, ships, and delivery drones also in our future?  Will 200 of us board the loading ramp of a Boeing 747 that we know won't have any human pilots seated up in the front cockpit?

Fortunately for me, I only have about a five minute commute to work at the Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards PS law office every day.  Still, with some trepidation I try to envision myself somewhere off in the not too distant future, leaned back in the rear seat of my own little Google box car, cup of coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, endeavoring to catch up on the daily news, while some artificial personality that I've nicknamed Hal or Ava does the driving in taking me to work in the morning.  Come to think of it, I'll probably be watching and listening to the news being broadcasted as a video from the tiny screen of an Apple Watch.  Anyway, hopefully, I'll get to work on time and in one piece.  That is, so long as Hal hasn't been distracted by some other commuter's Ava in the short course of the trip, and the two of them come up with something better for all of us to do that day than for me go to work.

About the Author

William K. Thayer

Bill Thayer is one of the founding partners of the Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards law firm. Bill is licensed in both Oregon and Washington, and actively practiced law from 1980 to 2021. He is now "of counsel" with Schauermann Thayer and serves as an arbitrator when appointed by the courts or litigants. During his more than 40 years of active law practice, Bill advised and represented clients in personal injury and wrongful death claims and litigation, including automobile collision, motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian injury and death cases, dog bite cases, construction site injury claims, and a myriad of other types of injury and death claims. While many claims were settled through negotiation or mediation, Mr. Thayer litigated, arbitrated and/or tried to verdict many cases for his clients. He continues to occasionally be appointed by courts and other lawyers to serve as an arbitrator of tort claims. Bill enjoys writing as one of his varied recreational interests when he is not working.


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