Self-driving surplus

By Eric Crampton 14/01/2015

The Oatmeal glimpses into the self-driving future. And it is awesome.

I’m biased. Earlier this year my mom had a stroke. It damaged the visual cortex of her brain, and her vision was impaired to the point that she’ll probably never drive again. This reduced her from a fully-functional, independent human being with a career and a buzzing social life into someone who is homebound, disabled, and powerless.

When discussing self-driving cars, people tend to ask a lot of superficial questions: how much will these cars cost? Is this supposed to replace my car at home? Is this supposed to replace taxis or Uber? What if I need to use a drive-thru?

They ignore the smarter questions. They ignore the fact that 45% of disabled people in the US still work. (Source: page 20) They ignore the fact that 95% of a car’s lifetime is spent parked.(Source) They ignore how this technology could transform the lives of the elderly, or eradicate the need for parking lots or garages or gas stations. They dismiss the entire concept because they don’t think a computer could ever be as good at merging on the freeway as they are.

They ignore the great, big, beautiful picture staring them right in the face: that this technology could make our lives so much better.

The levelling-up in consumer surplus will be unfathomable.

Driving is fun, and it’s worth keeping the option to do that sometimes. But commuting? Robo-Uber? Nobody would need a second car; many wouldn’t need a first car; urban parking need would plummet because most folks would flip to constantly driving self-driving options that stop only to switch passengers so urban form would change for the better. Everything will be awesome.

But it isn’t without risk – back to Oatmeal:

Riding in a self-driving car is not the white-knuckled, cybernetic thrill ride one might expect. The car drives like a person, and after a few minutes you forget that you’re being driven autonomously. You forget that a robot is differentiating cars from pedestrians from mopeds from raccoons. You forget that millions of photons are being fired from a laser and interpreting, processing, and reacting to the hand signals of a cyclist. You forget that instead of an organic brain, which has had millions of years to evolve the cognitive ability to fumble its way through a four-way stop, you’re being piloted by an artificial one, which was birthed in less than a decade.

The unfortunate part of something this transformative is the inevitable, ardent stupidity which is going to erupt from the general public. Even if in a few years self-driving cars are proven to be ten times safer than human-operated cars, all it’s going to take is one tragic accident and the public is going to lose their minds. There will be outrage. There will be politicizing. There will be hashtags.

It’s going to suck.

But I say to hell with the public. Let them spend their waking lives putt-putting around on a crowded interstate with all the other half-lucid orangutans on their cell phones.

I say look at the bigger picture. All the self-driving cars currently on the road learn from one another, and each car now collectively possesses 40 years of driving experience. And this technology is still in its infancy.

I say ignore the anecdotes, embrace the data.

I’m ready for our army of Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots.

I’m ready for the future. I’m ready for the marshmallows.

And even if we solve all that, there will still be the carping whining idiotic complaint that Brin and Google, who might get half a percent of the consumer surplus if they’re lucky, are still earning “too much”, that inequality’s gone up, or that they’re not paying enough in taxes for having had the temerity to make our lives indescribably better.

I’m imagining Cowen’s update on this, one of my favourite of his….

OK, people, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. I’m fed up! No more moderation, no more namby-pamby conciliations to those I disagree with, at least not today. I am plain, hopping mad. And who has pushed me over the edge?…

iPhone early adopters. (I’m one of them, though a virtuous one.) You may have heard, they just cut the price on iPhones. Get this:

“I just felt so used as a consumer,” he said. “They hyped up the iPhone for six months and built up our expectations, and then they grabbed our extra $200 and ran.”

It is you people, you who resent Coase (1972), you people who induce wage and price stickiness and widen the Okun gap. You people, who don’t know what it means to sit back and enjoy your consumer surplus. You beasts!

And to think you are all carrying around these wonderful icons of modernity in your pockets…


The other low-probability risk: give it a few decades, and the human-driving option will be close to banned. Fortunately, my uncle has a country place….