Why Self-Driving Cars are a Bad Idea – What About Improving Public Transportation Instead?

Self-driving cars – soon driving themselves to a street near you


Welcome to the future – self-driving cars are here but the roadblocks are too. The debut of self driving vehicles is filled with controversy; why do we need self driving cars? The industry has big selling plans. But many people are not sure if self-driving vehicles are even technically feasible at all. In addition some people will never support the idea of cars without drivers because driving is a lot of fun.

Robots taking our driving pleasure is something a few people are excited about. Legal and social implications are huge, and self-driving cars will certainly hit some people hard – drivers, their jobs, and pedestrians I’m afraid. There are 4.1 million people who drive for a living and 3.5 million do it full time. So the immediate question is: why we are spending billions to develop this new safe self-driving car technology, when there are millions of people who could do a better job? These are some of the controversial issues involving self-driving cars.

Because cars and driving are so important to us

Cars are part of our life in more ways than we think. Nothing else spells freedom as well as driving and the fact we can go places. The proof is where our money goes. The average person will spend $335,000 dollars in cars during his/her lifetime. But driving is also fun. Our driving enjoyment is what puts life into cars. Driving is a complex skill and requires not only our attention and creativity but our critical thinking.

Cars are also important to us because they represent a leap in our social evolution. A similar thing happened when we went from using horses to having cars. Now we are at doorsteps of another leap, but this time around we hand out our driving privileges to a robot in order to achieve a better world. This is not going to be an easy sell but we don’t have to worry for a while, the little robots have a lot to learn. Even the worst driver out there perform better then self-driving cars.

Please wait, This might take a while

It’s almost silly to think we can mimic the complexities of driving by just using algorithms. Driving is not just scanning objects and making sure you stop before you hit something – driving is much more than that.

Driving is like thinking, something computers are still far from doing correctly. Safely conducting a hunk of metal weighing around a ton is a dangerous task. While driving we’re required to make decisions all of the time in a continuous stream. A computer will face an overwhelming list of obstacles if is to perform even closer to what a regular person can mentally manage in fractions of a seconds. In some technical aspects, self-driving cars might even be able to beat the challenge but one important aspect still is missing – human judgment.

A computer can only react to its programming. But the complexity of programming that can deliver that is mind boggling if not impossible. Let’s try to illustrate this from a programmer’s point of view: Most likely your programmer will tell the computer to stop at a red light and then go when the light turns green; that is the easy part.

Let’s say there is a cop waving at the robot-car pulling the vehicle over. How do you program the computer to respond? Now let’s say there are a pile of boxes blocking the street ahead; do you tell the program to go into incoming traffic and pass to the other side or you program it to just stop and wait? Wait for what? What if there is a poorly written sign saying – detour to Main Street? What do you tell your computer to do? What if there are nails on the road?

Will the computer be able to see it, and what do you tell the program to do? I could go on all night here creating a list of scenarios and we are not even talking about snow and rain or a myriad of unknown unknowns.

What programming is able to do now is only a small fraction of what is require in real driving. Keeping cars between lanes and preventing them from hitting each other and the objects around is the easiest part. The hard part is how to interpret a chaotic, dangerous and fast changing environment, and navigate it safely.

Self-driving cars enthusiasts will argue that there are other technologies that will come to the rescue. GPS; communications from car to car; lanes created for self-driving cars; and changes to the urban landscape making it easier for the current technologies to complete the work.

Right now there is a race to the top. Billions are being spent. Google, Uber, Tesla, and Volvo are the front runners. A race for the benefit of humanity or just to make money?


Changing the world to accommodate robot drivers

Yes. If you give these new robot-cars a perfect and safe environment they might do quite well. Remove all obstacles, reduce the unknowns; make special lanes; create a robot-car only environment and now we are looking at a futuristic city where everyone is happy safe, and pollution free.

We are talking about urban planning at its best. But there is a much simpler and cheap way to achieve city decongestion and safe spaces along with clean air: and it is called public transportation or mass transit.

It is silly to think we can resolve our congestion problems by removing the driver from the car and replacing her with a robot. Individual vehicles are what create the largest level of pollution and congestion. Public transport is also 10 times safer.

So it all boil down to politics and lobbying which usually never favors public policy for the benefit of all. It is sad that we seem to always spend billions trying to make something wrong to work rather than spend millions to build something that will work.

Are there any real use for these cars?  

The question we have ask ourselves is: do we really need this technology? What is the cost benefit of building self-driving cars? A good application for self-driving cars are to provide independence to people who cannot drive for medical reasons. That would be one of them, and I’m sure there are others.

In other words, the only real reason we would need a self-driving car would be because we have a lack of drivers, but is this the case? No. There are many people that knows how to drive and are employed doing just that. People can be driving for blind people or people with handicaps.

So, ultimately what self-driving cars are accomplishing is farm out a job people could be doing, to a machine that can’t barely do the job. Usually machines are build to do just the opposite: to replace jobs that people cannot do for whatever reason. Such exemples would  be: robots that detonate bombs, usually a harmful jobs for people to do. So is this technology at the service of people? And the answer is no. This technology will be hurting people.

Why mobilizing resources to build for self-driving cars is a bad ideal

Changing our urban environment is a good idea but let’s change it so it accommodates people and not more cars. creating spaces so people can meet each other and enjoy life should be the goal. Our cities are now filled cars and ruined by their noise, dust and the fear of being run over by one.

They now occupy all living spaces as if they were the central and most important part of city living. All they are accomplishing is moving a small number of people from one place to another. Public transportation does a far better job, is safer and cheaper leaving our living spaces untouched.

Now imagine a city with no cars. At least a downtown area that is car free. Imagine the streets filled with joy and laughter as people mingle in cafes and restaurants. Children run free without parents fearing for their lives. Musicians and artists perform freely and their art can be enjoyed in the quietness of our car free streets. Some of our cities are experimenting with that ideal as they open downtown areas spaces by re routing streets. It is a wonderful experience to be in one of these places.


So if we are willing to make huge changes to our urban areas let’s make changes that will improve the life for everyone. Investing in self-driving cars will not create this change. Self-driving cars will not work because they are a not addressing the problem of public transportation. They are simply removing the driver from individual cars.

There are no prof they will be safer, effective or cheaper. Having a driver of not having one changes nothing. It only negatively affects those who are trying to make an honest living and are about to lose their jobs to a machine. Can we invest our money in something more productive? What do you think?




Image credit: flickr.com



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Marcos Taquechel

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