Thursday, June 16, 2011

Will Anyone Buy Autonomous Cars?

Edward Tenner of the Atlantic is skeptical that people will buy autonomous cars. Rightly, I think, he wonders about the social obstacles rather than the technological ones:
Automated driving's biggest problems, though, are social, not legal or technological. It will eventually work well in homogeneous, prosperous nations with strict checks, like those of Germany's rigorous nonprofit inspectorate, the TÜV, and Japan's private garages. (At least as recently as the 1990s, required repairs even of late-model cars were so expensive that they helped create a booming export market and stimulated frequent new-car buying.) The smaller, richer, more disciplined and more homogeneous the country, the better the prospects. The shaky financial state of many American drivers and the notoriously high cost of electronic component replacements (safety systems need multiple redundant versions of key hardware and software) would make the automated car an exotic techie luxury here, the 21st-century Segway.

I mostly agree with his idea that social factors will be the largest impediment to autonomous cars, but I am more optimistic that people will embrace the technology. His point about "smaller, richer, more disciplined and more homogeneous the country, the better the prospects" applies to all policy and social shifts and is not limited to driverless cars.

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