eat_dustby James A. Bacon

It’s amazing how Self-Driving Cars (SDCs) have burst into the consciousness of thinkers about transportation and urban development in the past month or two. Even more remarkable, the thinking hasn’t yet polarized into Republican/ Democratic, left wing/right wing camps. Eric Jaffe, a contributing writer to the center-left Atlantic Cities blog, has just written how a dynamic and innovative private sector may well leap-frog an ossified and gridlocked government sector to create the nation’s next transportation revolution, driverless cars — a position with which I largely concur.

Jaffe’s post was inspired by an article by Clifford Winston and Fred Mannerling in Economics of Transportation. I quoted the same article earlier this week in a post about properly taxing trucks to cover the damage they cause to roads and highways. That was just one of several opportunities created by new technology for government to wring greater efficiency from the nation’s transportation network. Unfortunately, the forces of inertia are great. Write Winston and Mannerling:

Our discussion of policymakers’ failure to implement this technology has culminated in the eternal debate over whether the public or the private sector is better able to spur technological change that contributes to growth. In the case of highways, we conclude that it is likely that the private sector will eventually implement driverless car technologies, and that those technologies will benefit motorists by leapfrogging the technological advance that the public sector has put on hold.

As Jaffe observes, government could implement many useful changes right now: “Proper road pricing could decrease traffic, not to mention generate transportation revenue. Better pavement design could reduce maintenance costs and vehicle damage. Stronger traffic control systems could improve safety on the road.” But government officials, he suggests, suffer from a bias toward the status quo.

Federal, state and local governments will get around to implementing those strategies eventually. They’ll just take way longer than it will take the private sector — driven by competition, the profit motive and organizational cultures that reward innovation — to put driverless cars on the road.

Unfortunately, government — or, more precisely, the tort system — still can muck up driverless cars. The key issue is liability for automobile accidents. As I hope to elaborate in a future article, our tort system is peculiarly mal-adapted to Self-Driving Cars. There can be little doubt that SDCs, which don’t get distracted, don’t get road rage and don’t drink, smoke dope or fall asleep at the wheel, will cause fewer accidents than humans. But the electronic components that make them safer overall create a special problem in individual court cases. The coding inside the software is so complex that it is impossible for automakers to prove that a flaw in the code did not cause an accident.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Don Howard and Mark P. Mills sing the praises of SDCs and address the liability issue head-on:

Self-driving cars shift liability for accidents from people, with relatively shallow pockets, to the deep pockets of manufacturers. …

The self-driving-car solution is clear. Congress should pre-empt [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and the trial lawyers and pass a National Autonomous Vehicle Injury Act. The Fords and Nissans and Googles and Qualcomms should voluntarily create an Autonomous Vehicle Event Reporting System. And industry players should also create a National Autonomous Vehicle Compensation System. 

Ideally, there would be a national legal standard. But if Congress is too gridlocked to act, the states should enact their own solutions. C’mon, Virginia, it’s time to get moving.

Update: I am informed that included in the FY 2015 budget is $1 million to support an inter-departmental work group to “identify regulatory challenges related to the development, testing, and use of unmanned technologies across all modes of conveyance. The work group shall suggest strategies to attract and promote the development of unmanned technology applications and companies, federal research at facilities located in the Virginia, venture and human capital, and applied research and technology that contribute to the growth and development of the unmanned systems sector in the Commonwealth.”

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13 responses to “Self-Driving Cars to Government: Eat My Dust!”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “Eat my Dust!” Great flick. Watch trailer:

    Cost $300K and a couple weeks to make. Grossed $5 m.

  2. I think this is a bit of right wing red herring… designed to attack the tort system rather than find real solutions.

    we have had software controlling things that can cause death for quite some time now – CT scans and auto-pilot in commercial airliners and LASIK laser surgery for three right quick off the top of the head.

    the difference is that the standard for software that can kill is a tougher certification than blog software or apps on a smartphone.

    With software than can kill – the testing regime is much tougher. Regular software you run test cases to see if the intended functions work as designed.

    with higher certification software – you make the software fail on purpose so you can define the boundaries of safe operation

    in my view – the last thing in the world you want with software that can kill is to remove responsibility for insuring that the higher standard is used and lower torts not an excuse for cutting corners on testing and V&V.

    all people have property rights – a fundamental libertarian value.

    we don’t take rights away from all people because some game the system.

  3. I was trying to edit when time ran out but I was giving the example of Uber and torts and insurance.

    can anyone imagine any legislator saying that Uber suffers as a business model because of the possibility of torts and the cost of insurance and therefor we should grant them tort-free status so the rest of can benefit “economically” from their tort-free status?

    Can anyone imagine what Uber-type services would look like if they were granted exemptions to torts?


    1. Which is more important to you, Larry: protecting the deep-pocketed plaintiff attorneys… or saving lives?

      1. I think the “deep pocket” idea is a trope that diverts the focus from the reality of what happens to the majority of people who are harmed and are not gaming the system with “deep pockets”.

        You _might_ be able to make a weak argument with doctors but to take that approach and use it in the marketplace is essentially giving exemptions for some to do harm to others.. and get away with it.

        that’s wrong. everyone has the right to not be harmed by others.

        taking rights away from some because others are gaming the system is not the right solution ESPECIALLY for non-medical consumer products.

        to me, this shows a fundamental lack of awareness of the issue of property rights.. and insurance…

        insurance is how a private business should deal with torts. The insurance company will determine the risk and the cost of mitigating it.

        this is why it’s bad policy for the government to subsidize flood insurance, or exempt things like Uber or life-critical software.

        the answer to this is not some illogical Conservative idea that basically protects some special interests at the expense of others.

        why should the government do this in the first place if in the free market a transaction is between two parties who both assume risks and liabilities?

      2. Jim – you won’t save lives by exempting software developers from more rigorous (and costly) standards for software. You’ll encourage the cheapest software solution which will cut corners…

        you’d be creating an environment where the cheapest, fastest-developed software would win over more carefully developed software.

      3. DJRippert Avatar

        Larry doesn’t understand your argument.

        Larry – let’s stipulate that self-driving cars are safer than human operated cars. Therefore, more self driving cars mean fewer accidents and fewer humans being killed and maimed in auto accidents.

        If companies are unwilling to make self-driving cars because any accidents that do occur will bankrupt the “deep pocketed” company then more people will be killed and maimed due to the lack of self-driving cars.

        I guess in you warped sense of justice that’s OK.

        Virginia has common sense medical malpractice limits. Doctors like it, plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t.

        Do you believe that grave injustices are occurring in Virginia because of the limits on malpractice awards?

        Limiting liabilities for damage awards is nothing new. The Montreal Convention (to which the United States is a signatory) limits the financial liability of airlines for death or injury on international flights.

        1. Larry – let’s stipulate that self-driving cars are safer than human operated cars. Therefore, more self driving cars mean fewer accidents and fewer humans being killed and maimed in auto accidents.”

          as with many political arguments these days – in theory and if that were actually the guaranteed truth why does Bacon want liability exemptions?

          “If companies are unwilling to make self-driving cars because any accidents that do occur will bankrupt the “deep pocketed” company then more people will be killed and maimed due to the lack of self-driving cars.”

          you mean like bad drugs or GE refusing to make MRIs or other companies LASIK lasers, etc?

          do you understand RISK and who is responsible for risk and what happens when you exempt them from risk ? Do you understand why our subsidized flood program violates the principles of risk and insurance?

          I guess in you warped sense of justice that’s OK.

          when someone dies because you were exempted from liability – that’s not justice guy.

          “Virginia has common sense medical malpractice limits. Doctors like it, plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t.”

          it’s limited an it’s restricted to medical not consumer products.

          “Do you believe that grave injustices are occurring in Virginia because of the limits on malpractice awards?”

          do you believe that we have exempted any and all companies from any/all products?

          “Limiting liabilities for damage awards is nothing new. The Montreal Convention (to which the United States is a signatory) limits the financial liability of airlines for death or injury on international flights.”

          why not domestic flights? is the limit for any/all damage? better read your blog.

          do you think we should do it for all products that people buy?

          there are certain narrow circumstances where limiting liability that is not wanton disregard might be appropriate but to exempt any/all manufacturers – even you would probably not agree.

          do you want to exempt UBER from liability? How about the manufacturer of your furnace or the brakes on your car?

          this is loony stuff DJ.. you’re buying into the right’s looney logic and the funny thing is that it’s the right that talks about people’s “rights” and what you’re advocating is taking them away so that a company can be irresponsible and get away with it.

  4. I will admit that in these modern times that a company can be easily bankrupted by something that has been found to be – a legitimate hazard that affects a lot of people.

    and I will further stipulate that some things – that are manufactured end up being so risky that they are inherently a threat to any company making those things.

    so I’m not oblivious to the problem.

    but you cannot replace insurance companies and the function they perform in assessing risk – with government edicts that deprive people who have been grievously harmed by true negligence. When the govt steps in, they are essentially encouraging the manufacturer to NOT use due diligence and to not use the principles of insurance to assess their true risk.

    some products should not be manufactured .. they can harm a lot of people -but if the government declares such inherently risky things as exempted from redress from those harmed – then how does that help people stay alive?

    who decided the cost-benefit or ROI of allowing something that – if done right – can save lives versus exempting something that can save lives if done right but because of the exemption gets done wrong?

    People hammer the EPA all day long for doing this with pollutants.. so perhaps you’d like an EPA-like approach to product liability?

    Ironically one of the benefits of EPA allowing some kinds of pollutants – is it tends to indemnify the manufacturer as being “EPA-approved” or OSHA-approved.

    I just think the simplified sound-bite approach to these kinds of issues – to exempt from liability is not a good answer. it has some big downsides for those who lose protection of the law for their rights.

    People have a legal right to not be harmed by negligence. Companies do not have a legal right to negligently make inherently unsafe products and the arbiter – ought to be using insurance principals of risk.

  5. re: “we’re closer to self-driving cars that we think” ” self-driving cars won’t become a reality anytime soon if they are not exempted from negligence”

    okay – so where is the truth?

    if a self driving car is driving at 70 miles per hour on a multi-lane highway with people-driven cars and it attempts to change lanes to make the next exit and a driver speeds up to take the lane – not an unusual occurrence on modern roads as there are all kinds of driving behaviors that while they don’t exactly violate the law of physics – they violate the law of common-sense.

    what computers and software have done – over and over – is that they presume to “computerize” some process but in the end they change the way that the process is done.

    so you got a software developer who is building” decision-making “smarts” into the brain of a self-driving car.

    what kind of driving behavior would – say one software developer consider acceptable for a self-driving car and another software developer think opposite?

    Have you ever used a piece of software and wondered what was going through the mind of the developer when he wrote it because that software don’t work anything like the way you think it should?

    I bet everyone has been there on that issue. How many Smartphone Apps have people used only to scratch their heads on how it works?

    How many weapon systems developed by highly skilled software developers turned out to be crap because the developers truly did not understand how the software would actually be used in the field?

    anyone who has developed even the most simple of software knows that if you ask 20 different software developers to write code for some function – you will not only get 20 different software programs – you’ll get 20 different ideas of how the software should function for users.

    you tell 20 different highly intelligent and highly skilled software developers to design self-driving software and I guarantee you they’ll work differently and often according to the way that that software developer thinks something should work.

    The experts in this kind of software are DOD. Civilians write software for everything military from fighter jets to drones to fire control systems on submarines, to GPS for soldiers. .. and it took some number of years but the military now requires the actual anticipated “end” user to actually sit on the engineering team to represent the people who will use the software.

    I predict that with self-driving cars – software – we’re going to end up with human behavior specialists who will catalog and categorize all the various human driving behaviors that will then be analyzed to determine what a driverless car should do when encountering a human driver.. even if that driver is in a “connected” car…

    ever had someone pass you on the right and pull back in front of you – as the same time you have a car tailgating you?

    what do you do? you can’t slam on your brakes.. like you would normally… so what would a driverless car do? would we end up changing the way that non-driverless cars operate, i.e. the car would not allow the “cut in front” behavior even if he human was pulling on the wheel?

    this is far, far away from being practical in most everyday situations

    and getting back to software – do we think if a software developer implements a behavior that turns out to be a mistake – that he and the company should be exempted from the mom/dad and two kids that died as a result?

    we have to develop industry standards – for these kinds of things. they cannot be left to one developer, one developer team or even one company.

    there has to be concurrence on what constitutes acceptable driverless car behavior and one is not..

    and we are just now beginning to get into it.

  6. here’s what driverless cars are up against:

    Life-critical system

    let’s look at some existing things that are subjected to this standard:

    Heart-lung machines
    Mechanical ventilation systems
    Infusion pumps and Insulin pumps
    Radiation therapy machines
    Robotic surgery machines
    Defibrillator machines
    Nuclear reactor control systems
    Nuclear reactor cooling systems
    Amusement rides
    Climbing equipment
    SCUBA Equipment
    Railway signalling and control systems
    Platform detection to control train doors[6]
    Automatic train stop
    Airbag systems
    Braking systems
    Seat belts
    Power Steering systems
    Advanced driver assistance systems
    Electronic throttle control
    Battery management system for hybrids and electric vehicles
    Electric Park Brake
    Shift by wire systems
    Drive by wire systems
    Park by wire
    Air traffic control systems
    Avionics, particularly fly-by-wire systems
    Radio navigation RAIM
    Engine control systems
    Aircrew life support systems
    Flight planning to determine fuel requirements for a flight

    the above systems are so categorized whether they use software or not.

    it’s an engineering standard that relates to systems that are life-critical.

    As far as I can determine – none of these systems were granted waivers or exemptions from liability so they can advance through development and become implemented in the marketplace.

    this issue is, in my view, an opportunity for the rest of us to better understand the role of standards and government in life-critical systems – as opposed to the typical sound-bite perspective of those who tend to be anti-regulation and anti-government.

    why, for instance, do we even have a category of engineering and software called life-critical to start with?

    is the idea of a life-critical system some kind of a liberal – anti-free market concept that is an excuse for the government to inject itself into what should be instead – a totally free market issue ?

    what exactly is the basis for the government’s duty, role in “rule of law” , i.e. providing laws and a court system for individuals to seek redress from others who the believe have harmed them?

    some countries have no such “rule of law”. Basically – a transaction between you and another person is not a government issue at all. It’s totally a voluntary arrangement between you and another party.

    Most of these countries that operate this way are called 3rd world.

    That does not mean that there is only one possible version of what a 1st world country should – or should not do.

    But – the big hurdle – the crossing of the proverbial Rubicon is whether you believe the government should be involved in such transactions.

    If you say yes – then from that point on – it’s an argument about how to do it not whether to do it or not.

    we seem to forget that.. in issues like this – where we somehow think that for some “good” reason – that government-instituted “rule-of-law” has become perverted or gotten out of hand .. and “we”, the parenthetical version of “we” , each have our own unique way of thinking about this with a major division between those who self-identify as “right” (Conservative) or “left-of-right” – everyone else who has watered-down “principles”.

    Standards and regulations are the obvious and undeniable result of “rule of law” which is based on the idea of “protecting” rights – equally for all.

    and that’s where the fly gets in to the proverbial ointment when it comes to goods and services produced by some and consumed/used by others.

    Every now and then something comes along that makes us re-consider our views and I would posit that self-driving cars – along with “Uber” type services (they ARE somewhat similar in terms of standards and risk and regulation) are one of those times.

    It’s one thing for the Army to develop a self-driving convoy truck that can wander about in a war zone and quite another to put one of these critters on our current urban interstate system.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    We don’t need to stinking regulation!

    1. Question of the day – Is Govt instituted “rule-of-law” -essentially regulation?

      why is it the purpose of government to “protect” property rights in the first place? why is that a legitimate purpose of government if people say that the free market should be unfettered Laissez-faire?

      and if Govt is going to do “rule-of-law” – who decides what “rule of law” is – especially with regard to torts? Why do the rules for torts have to be what Conservatives think they should be or not versus those nasty liberals ideas of what torts should be? Who appointed the Conservatives to decide this?

      Of course the right leaning “sorta” Libertarian type conservatives seems to be tortured by the entire idea of “insurance” .. don’t even seem to understand what it has to do with the free market.. sometimes.. like it’s a govt-created thing.

      they blame govt for regulations but actually the insurance companies decide many of these issues and negligent people run to the government to “protect” their “right” to be negligent and to harm others… and when others come to the govt to seek redress against those that have harmed them – the “no fair” card is played.. it’s “no fair” to have unlimited torts.. it limits the “rights” of those who are accused of being negligent so we have to make sure that those nasty uber-liberal trial lawyers are kept in check.

      I could go on, but you probably get the drift.

      the world has to operate according to what Conservatives think or you are a sap sucker …dirty…good for nothing.. socialist.

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