Nobody at the Wheel: A Guaranteed Way to Save 43,000 American Lives Per Year

NobOdy at the Wheel cartoon
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

What if I told you that about 43,000 people are killed every year in America because of a particular thing that stupid people do? You’ve probably guessed what it is. It’s driving a car. Why we don’t get all worked up about it, I don’t know. I guess we consider it a necessity to get where we want to go. So if 43,000 people have to die for all of us to go about our business every year, well, I guess that is just a necessity. After all, we have seat belts, roll bars and airbags. So we do all we can.

It’s a pretty amazing way of thinking.

Twenty years ago, sitting in a traffic jam on a Friday night coming out to the Hamptons with everybody’s engines running, I listened to a report about how much carbon dioxide is thrown up into the atmosphere every day by every car. In each of the three lanes in front of me, there were the red taillights of cars going out as far as the eye could see. In each of the three lanes behind me were white front lights. White corpuscles. Red corpuscles. All just barely moving, with an occasional lurch a few feet this way and that in arteries all across America.

At the time, I thought of a movie plot I could write. It was 50 years ahead. In the movie, there were roving bands of thugs carrying sledgehammers, smashing car windows and car engines and doors and grilles, reducing the population of cars down to rubble everywhere they went. They said they were Environmental Thugs, out to stop global warming by making it impossible for cars to go anywhere, but they were thugs nevertheless. I never did anything with this idea.

In recent times, there have been articles written about “driverless cars.” Toyota is experimenting with one, Honda, Google, Apple, Tesla, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Ford, even Facebook. But they are not “driverless.” They have been branded with that word because the reporters writing about these cars consider it only from their understandable human point of view. In fact, they will be driven by computers.

We have already had a quick taste of how that might go over. It’s been this uncomfortable business of self-parking cars. You are driving the car. You come alongside a parking space. You press a button and the computer takes over and moves you back and forth and back and forth until you are comfortably in the space you have chosen.

People are convinced that they just got lucky. They are convinced that except for this one time, the computer will surely make many, many more mistakes than they would. They will be in a crash. If only they had been at the wheel. Now everything is destroyed and there are the dying and injured everywhere. What a bad idea. Self-parking cars have not been a big success.

The reason for this is control. People love to drive, to control where they are going, to race the engine, to pass a truck with an extra lurch of power, to come through an intersection under the yellow light just as it is about to, but hasn’t quite, turned red. They are not going to give this up easily. It will probably take some teenage thugs with sledgehammers to deliver the message. They will be wearing the military uniforms. After finishing their work, they will pull the human drivers out from behind the wheel inside the wreckage, handcuff them and take them off to jail. They will be charged with reckless endangerment and driving while human.

We are not talking about the Surgeon General’s warning that smoking is dangerous to your health. We are talking about the death that happens every eight minutes in this country with human drivers at the wheel. It will stop.

Well, it will almost stop. According to studies done, the number of accidents will be reduced by two thirds. There will still be humans, particularly when drunk, walking into the side of a moving car.

So, yes, it is true. We are soon to wind up with cars driven by robots who will not get in any accidents at all as they take you around to where you have to go. They will do it at the speed limit. They will do it accurately and correctly and no, you will not be able to push them aside and take over from them.

Of course, we have not quite gotten the technology there yet. But driverless cars are being tested, mostly out in California, where Silicon Valley techies are working on the problem.

In a recent AP story, a reporter interviewed one of the people who sits in a computer-driven car, taking notes about what it is doing. The route takes him around and around a track and through the roads going alongside a former military base now privately owned and used for testing “driverless” cars, not only from Google but from several other companies.

Brian Torcelli is one of these “safety” drivers. He graduated San Diego State with a degree in Political Science, not computers.

“A lot of people go to work and sit in a cubicle,” he told the reporter. “Our cube just happens to move around the roads. And if we are successful, we are going to put ourselves out of our jobs.”

He is one of 60 such “safety” drivers, a job that starts at $20 an hour. He’s been doing it six years. He and the others have been driven around not only on the former military base, but out on the public roads. Google has logged more than a million miles on the public roads in and around Mountain View, California. They sit inside special computer cars that look like giant lozenges, and they sit inside regular cars decked out to be computer cars.

So far, so good, apparently. Well, almost apparently. There was an article recently about a cop pulling over a computer car to give the driver a moving violation ticket. But there was nobody to give the ticket to.

There are going to be lots and lots of changes when all this happens. There was an article in The New York Times business section last week about how this will decimate the insurance business. Insuring automobiles, actually insuring humans who drive automobiles, is a trillion dollar a year business. It is going to come crashing down. The auto-body business will suffer mightily. Lawyers suing drunk drivers will be over with. There will be no more drunk drivers, just drunks. Say goodbye to Uber drivers, to the taxi drivers, to the courts, to the lawyers and judges who adjudicate the causes of accidents, to the hospitals that attend to those gravely injured but not dead, to rehab. With cars not crashed, there will be a decline in the sale of new ones. The list goes on and on.

Of course all this may never happen. Go back to the beginning of this article. You think the gun lobby is powerful? Wait until you see what an anti robot car lobby can do. It is every American’s Constitutional right to drive a car. The only reason it is not in the Constitution is because cars were not around yet.

When the money rains down on the legislatures, it will be the robots who will be given the old heave ho out of the driver’s seat. There isn’t a man or woman in America who doesn’t lust after a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari or a Mercedes or an Escalade that they could drive whenever or wherever they want—yes, obeying the laws and staying sober and with the seat belt buckled.

God bless America.

Still more people died? Too bad for them.

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