Like all Florida lawyers, I’m required to take continuing legal education courses to stay current on developments in the law. So I found myself at a seminar recently hearing a speaker talk about how the future belongs to self-driving cars.

The speaker was bullish on this new technology. He predicted that driverless cars will be all over the roads within five years. He also said public transportation is likely to die out. As he explained, the great advantage of public transportation is that people who use it don’t have to drive. According to him, that will no longer be a selling point, because driverless cars will offer the same benefit.

I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m not convinced now. There are a slew of problems and dilemmas which remain to be addressed before driverless cars start taking over our world. This blog will discuss just a few of them.

First, the technology still has a long way to go. This is illustrated by the tragic case where a Tesla driver was killed a few months ago near Gainesville, Florida. His Tesla’s autopilot system failed to recognize a large truck trailer crossing his path, smashed into it, and killed him.

Definitive answers about what went wrong weren’t immediately available. However, it seems possible that light conditions, along with the white trailer blocking the road ahead, confused the autopilot and prevented it from recognizing the danger.

Second, the great majority of people still can’t afford driverless cars. This is why the notion that driverless cars will kill public transportation is highly unlikely. Many public transportation riders can’t afford any type of car, especially when one considers the cost of gas, maintenance, and insurance. A car which drives itself will still carry all the unavoidable expenses of engines, tires, seats, etc., plus the cost of the sophisticated driving computer. Not everyone will be in a position to pay for this any time soon.

Furthermore, some people use public transportation because they have a disability, such as blindness, which makes it impossible for them to drive. Unless we become so confident in the technology that we allow people in cars when they can’t drive at all, these people won’t be ditching buses and trains either.

So-called futurists will dismiss these as mere engineering problems. They will point out that smart phones were inconceivable 20 years ago, and are cheap and plentiful today. However, there’s a huge difference between mobile phones and cars: phones (Galaxy Note 7s excepted) generally aren’t dangerous. Cars can be very dangerous, and operating them can create moral dilemmas.

Consider the following situation:

A driver is rolling through a neighborhood. Suddenly, a small boy jumps in front of the car to chase a ball into the street. The driver has to make a split-second choice between three options: (1) hit the child and almost certainly kill him, (2) swerve left into oncoming traffic and face great personal danger, or (3) swerve right toward a stone wall and also face great personal danger.

Many drivers would choose to swerve to avoid a small child, even if that means putting themselves in danger. Culturally, we often value children’s lives more than adult’s lives. But driverless technologies can’t make those kinds of value judgments. They operate according to algorithms, and value judgments – as the old saying goes – don’t compute.

Someday far in the future, driverless technology may employ an artificial intelligence capable of true judgment and compassion. Until then, I don’t think we’ll be taking our collective hands off the wheel.

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