Engineering Ethics Blog: When Driving Becomes Illegal

I’ve been reading a new book
about autonomous driving by a couple of academics and the former CEO of Audi in
Germany.  They back up their claim of their
subtitle—”How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World”—with
detailed statistics, economic analyses, and examples from research labs around
the world.  Admittedly, the bloom has
somewhat faded from the autonomous-driving rose in the last year or so, but
this may be just a temporary lull in what looks to be a decades-long
progression of the technology toward full Level 5 totally hands-off robotic

No one has yet routinely fielded
a car that can handle all the roadway and environmental conditions a human
driver can deal with, which is the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE)
definition of Level 5 performance.  But
some companies, notably the Google-fostered Waymo, are coming close.  For example, Waymo claims that in 2017, its
autonomous test cars racked up over 350,000 miles with an average distance
between “disengagements” (occasions when the human driver takes over)
of almost 5,600 miles.  Of course, one
suspects that few if any of these miles were driven on the New Jersey Turnpike
at night during a January blizzard, which is the worst driving conditions your scribe
has personally experienced.  Nonetheless,
it looks like cars that drive themselves are headed our way.

I remember talking about
autonomous cars with a friend one day a few years ago, and I asked him under
what circumstances he would give up driving his own car manually.  He answered, “When they pry the steering
wheel from my cold dead hands.”  I
suspect that here in Texas especially, this is not an uncommon sentiment.  The advent of the automobile in the early
years of the twentieth century fundamentally reshaped American life, especially
for women.  The freedom to pick up and go
wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without bothering about train
schedules or other third-party issues, was fundamental to the growth of the
nation and molded much of its infrastructure to this day. 

At first glance, there is no
obvious reason why the advent of autonomous vehicles would limit this
freedom.  After all, if it amounts to
nothing more than a kind of robotic chauffeur, your autonomous car’s controls
will do your bidding every bit as well as you could if you were driving—probably
better, in fact. 

But buried on page 81 of Autonomous
is a hint that the transition from where we are now—with manual driving
being the norm and autonomous driving the still-rare exception—to an
all-autonomous fleet nationally may not be as smooth as you might think.  The reason has to do not so much with the
fact that human drivers are bad drivers—most of them aren’t.  But a manually driven car will lack the
communications and infrastructure connections that are shaping up to be an
essential part of the autonomous-car package. 

You may have seen
simulations of how heavy traffic in both directions at a four-way intersection
can flow smoothly without any traffic lights or stop signs, as long as the
vehicles coming to the crossing are able to interact with each other and
mutually work out subtle speed changes that allow collision-free traffic
flow.  The simulators don’t show this,
but all it would take to snarl up such an ideal situation would be one
comparative-lunkhead manual driver who was unaware of all the intense coordination
going on around him, and tried to bull through the intersection like everyone
else seemed to be doing. 

Enlarge that snarlup to
nationwide proportions, and you can see why the developers of autonomous cars
are concerned that the continued presence of old-fashioned manual drivers on
the road may some day present a significant obstacle to the progress of
autonomous vehicles. 

The authors propose some
interim solutions, such as reserving special lanes on some roads for autonomous
cars and even prohibiting manually-driven cars altogether in certain
areas.  They say that the best solution,
however, would be if “the transition to driverless cars is accelerated by
means of legislation.”  In other
words, at some time in the perhaps not so distant future, they hope that legislators
will summon the nerve to ban manually-driven cars altogether.  So much for my friend with his cold dead

This plan is not without its
aspects of class and socioeconomic implications.  Who drives the oldest, most decrepit cars
nowadays, and who is least likely to be able to afford even a used autonomous
car if the time comes that manually-driven cars are banned?  Poor people, that’s who.  Of course, this notion assumes that the
dominant model of privately-owned and privately-driven cars persists long enough
to last to the time when Level-5 autonomous cars are widely available and affordable
by most people.  There are autonomous-car
proponents who claim that car ownership will wither away as cheap robotic Uber
or Lyft-type cabs will make public transportation so appealing and inexpensive
that even the poorest person will not miss their old junk manually-driven vehicle as they take
advantage of the newer, cleaner, and more convenient and reliable autonomous
cab services that will show up. 

That may make sense for
places like New York or Los Angeles.  But
what about small towns and rural areas?  Whatever
the costs of autonomous cabs, they will be more expensive if the trips are
farther, and for many rural and semi-rural areas, owning your own manually-driven
car will probably be cheaper overall than paying for some autonomous-driver cab
service that may never show up where you live at all.  Historically and on average, mass public
transportation has never been profitable, and the economic case has yet to be
made (to me, anyway) that the advent of autonomous vehicles is going to change

Besides the economic
argument, there is the principle that when I drive the car that I own, it becomes
an extension of my personality, whether for good or ill.  This metaphysical connection between the
human being and the vehicle is behind much of the present automotive
advertising you see.  It’s behind my
friend’s vehement opposition to letting go of the steering wheel to allow a
robot to drive.  And I suspect that if
the question of banning manually driven cars ever came up in the Texas state
legislature, for example, what would happen next would leave our calm, logical
German book authors with their heads spinning.

So the day may yet come when
it will be not only inadvisable, but illegal, to get behind the wheel of a car
and drive it yourself.  But if it does,
it won’t be without a struggle.

Sources:  Authors Andreas
Herrmann, Walter Brenner, and Rupert Stadler wrote Autonomous Driving:  How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the
(Bingley, UK:  Emerald
Publishing, 2018).  An interesting side
note which doesn’t change my generally positive view of the book:  shortly after it was published, Stadler, who
at the time was CEO of Audi, was arrested in connection with the Volkswagen emissions
scandal (see my blog on this at,
and released in October 2018 after stepping down from his post with the company.  I also referred to the Wikipedia pages
“Autonomous car” and “Rupert Stadler.”  A simulation by MIT researchers of an
intersection with all autonomous cars can be viewed at

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