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Bad drivers should have their cars driven by robots

A while ago I had one of those “Someone on the Internet is Wrong” arguments with the authors of an article arguing that we would need massively more evidence before we could conclude that autonomous cars are safer than those driven by humans. Rather than dig back to find those arguments again, I thought I’d link to this Bloomberg piece and, in particular the following passage

GM’s autonomous test cars were in 22 accidents in California last year, according to data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles … In a November interview, GM President Dan Ammann attributed the accidents to testing in a dense urban environment and noted the company’s cars weren’t at fault in any of the incidents.

Suppose that in any crash between autonomous cars and humans, each is equally likely to be at fault. What is the probability of seeing 22 crashes caused by humans and none by autonomous cars. Obviously, it’s the same as that of a fair coin showing 22 heads in a row, which is 2^-22 or about 1 in 10 million.

Of course, the drivers involved in the crashes aren’t likely to be a random sample of the population. As is standard in such things, the 80/20 rule applies: 20 per cent of drivers are responsible for 80 per cent of crashes and traffic infringements. THe 80/20 rule is derived from a Pareto distribution, and we can apply it a second time to say that 20 per cent of the remaining 80 per cent of drivers are responsible for 80 per cent of the remaining 20 per cent of crashes. That is, 36 per cent of drivers are responsible for 96 per cent of crashes. On that basis, it’s perfectly possible that the remaining 64 per cent of good drivers are as good as autonomous cars or even better.

It might also be argued that autonomous vehicles may fail in defensive driving, that is, in reducing harm in a crash caused by the failure of another driver.

Still, it seems pretty clear that autonomous cars are a lot better than the drivers responsible for most crashes and infringements. It isn’t that hard to identify a lot of these drivers before they kill themselves someone else, since prior driving record variables, particularly a driver’s prior traffic citation history, are the most consistent and powerful predictors of subsequent accident risk. Now that cars don’t need steering wheels or pedals any more, there’s no obvious reason to put people with bad driving records back in charge of them. Bad drivers should have their cars driven by robots.

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  1. January 14th, 2018 at 13:59 | #1

    I got a 503 error on the last hyperlink.

    This is a fascinating subject to me. I’ll try to avoid the “someone on the internet is wrong” technical arguments but instead focus on the practical (and therefore ethical) limitations of navigation with autonomous systems. The fundamental ethical difficulty with requiring the use of autonomous vehicles is that they don’t handle “edge cases” well and therefore limit mobility in the real world (see the second link above). Putting aside statistical arguments about safety, even the strongest advocates of self-driving vehicles admit they don’t navigate well everywhere, such as over rough, unimproved roads or in very tight quarters (think of narrow streets prone to total blockage), and even residences in primitive locations. As a practical matter, this would mean that requiring the use of autonomous vehicles would also mean limiting the ability of those assigned to such vehicles to go wherever they want, or need to go. I personally do not believe this type of navigational problem will be solved anytime soon. Of course, that could be wrong (anticipating the aforementioned someone on the internet is wrong) but we couldn’t do it this week anyway.

    Are you willing to limit the mobility of individuals if they have a record of dangerous driving? It’s not as strict as requiring the use of rail or bus, but for many individuals it seems quite restrictive. Many would not notice any difference in their personal mobility but many others would be inconvenienced or even be forced to make major lifestyle changes. Would everyone else be safer yes, but at what cost of personal freedom?

    Basically I’m putting forward that while your idea may be suitable in certain geographical areas, it will not fit all individuals in need of robotic cars. I think it’s apparent that these edge cases will eventually be addressed technically but aren’t right now and it’s difficult to predict at what point they will be addressed completely, since it is a matter of ever diminishing returns on investment for the experts working on the matter.

    As a future solution, I personally think we will probably all be better off when software is perfected to control personal transportation so in that sense I support your proposal as an eventual goal. I certainly have seen drivers that I thought were bad enough and inconsiderate enough of the safety of others that I could agree they should be forced to use self-driving vehicles even if it meant imposing limitations on mobility but thought to point out the ethical pitfalls of such a requirements. It’s bound to end up in litigation and legislative nuisance at some point.

    One other point: there are the car/driving enthusiasts. They are going to be a PITA on the subject of requiring the use of self-driving vehicles. I have to admit I pretty much don’t like those guys anyway and think they are much of the problem so I say make them do it first, but also think that will be a major lobbying group to contend with.

    For more on this subject from a technical standpoint, I refer you to the website of Rodney Brooks, an Australian expert on robotics and artificial intelligence (website not listed here to comply with site rules – was he one of the authors you argued with?), and go argue with him if you disagree on the technical considerations of autonomous navigation.

  2. Ikonoclast
    January 14th, 2018 at 14:29 | #2

    I agree. I would give bad drivers some more choices though. They could also be driven by taxi, bus or train drivers. 😉

    The idea that a car licence (or motorcycle licence) is some kind of right, and some kind of rite of passage, belongs back in another era.

    One of the issues is policing compliance. The most dangerous drivers of all are those who ignore licence disqualifications, fines and even jail stints and then just keep on driving. How do we stop these recalcitrants? Perhaps each private car key should have encoded a licence key code issued linking one private licence to one private car (and a few variations on that to cater for families):- the code pad being in the dash of the car. Those disbarred from a licence could not in any way get a code to run their own car.

  3. Ronald
    January 14th, 2018 at 15:49 | #3

    The electronic senses, computing power, and communications connection required for automated driving will probably cost less than providing manual controls for a human driver. So for the type of person who buys new cars, requiring them to use a robo-car if they demonstrate they are not safe drivers will not a great loss for them.

    But once the technology has proved itself, we’d be fools not to require every new car to have it. So people who want to drive themselves could, but the car would take over in an emergency situation to prevent people being harmed. If a human can demonstrate they can drive better than a machine in an emergency then they could be permitted to drive all the time, but I think that would be difficult to do. We still have airline pilots because their careers are focused on flying safely while the very large majority of drivers are amateurs.

    But for people who do want to drive manually, a robo-car would be an excellent teaching tool. I’m just not sure where that particular skill would come in handy once the stock of non-robo cars are recycled, converted, or crashed.

  4. January 14th, 2018 at 20:42 | #4

    Popular attitudes to accident risk indicate that humans place a high value on personal control, and demand that a vehicle driven by another or a robot be far safer than one they drive themselves. The factor is at at least ten. Fortunately autonomous vehicle systems will easily be able to meet the bar. They never drink, lack sleep, get involved in arguments with spouses and children, ignore speed limits, jump lights, and get angry with the idiots driving other cars.

  5. Factory
    January 15th, 2018 at 06:59 | #5

    “Still, it seems pretty clear that autonomous cars are a lot better than the drivers responsible for most crashes and infringements.”

    Erk, while it’s theoretically possible that autonomous car are better, I’d be leery of taking the word of an officer of a company that is trying to develop and market an autonomous car. Even assuming the best of intentions, the tests atm will be around the ‘best conditions’ for the cars, when it gets into the real world, we’ll find out how close these are to the average condition, and by how much the cars need the best conditions.

  6. derrida derider
    January 15th, 2018 at 08:15 | #6

    James is right that to get public acceptance autonomous cars are going to have to be a lot safer than humans. Aviation is the precedent here – the computers have made commercial flying far safer than a few decades ago but those crashes that do occur for precisely that reason get far more publicity and generally arise from human deskilling when the computers are doing all the routine stuff (AF447 is the canonical example – the pilots did not recognise an ordinary stall because the computers do not normally allow one). This has led regulators around the world to be very reluctant to allow further automation.

    It is far easier to make a safe pilotless plane than a safe driverless cars because the airports and airspace is far more controlled than roads. That’s the reason I think very large scale infrastructure changes would be need to make true driverless cars, and that’s not going to happen. Though I do expect driver aids to get better and better.

  7. Smith
    January 15th, 2018 at 08:52 | #7

    You can cancel the licences of bad drivers, but you can’t stop them from driving.

  8. John Quiggin
    January 15th, 2018 at 09:00 | #8


    “I’d be leery of taking the word of an officer of a company”

    If you follow the links you get to the original accident reports. I didn’t check all of them, but i satisfied myself that Ammann’s claim was properly documented.

  9. Ronald
    January 15th, 2018 at 09:32 | #9

    There is no need to change the laws to get bad drivers out from behind the steering wheel. Existing laws could merely be enforced more. This is not difficult to do now that human eyes are no longer required to detect unsafe driving.

    But rather than bludgeon people with old laws applied 10 fold, I’d prefer a more sensible option. More frequent but lesser punishments. With perhaps a provision that any fines accumulated will be returned if a person voluntarily gives up self driving.

  10. Ronald
    January 15th, 2018 at 09:48 | #10

    With the accident record of self driving cars, the robocar is very unlikely to be at fault because they tend to follow the rules, but it is still possible a human driver may have been able to avoid some of those accidents. However, it is clear that the accident rate overall is low already and this is only going to improve with experience.

  11. Ronald
    January 15th, 2018 at 09:57 | #11

    Smith, most people who have their licenses taken away don’t drive. If you think the rate of unlicensed driving is too high then people could be photographed when their licenses are suspended and a camera with facial recognition software could recognize them on the roads and they could be arrested after the fact. Vans with dark tinted windows or people driving while wearing disguises may need some extra surveillance to determine who is driving them, but some people would consider this extra amount to be a good thing.

    A couple of years ago this suggestion would have been nuts, but the problem has been solved. In the lab at least, computers recognize faces slightly better than humans. This was achieved through software teaching itself.

  12. Smith
    January 15th, 2018 at 10:26 | #12


    “most people who have their licenses taken away don’t drive.”

    But the ones that do are likely to be the most dangerous, such as drug-addicted Craig Whitall who over Christmas killed a family in NSW (and thankfully himself), while driving a four wheel drive. He was not just unlicensed but had over 60 driving offences including multiple convictions and jail time. for driving while disqualified.

    Facial recognition software should stop people from driving before they drive. iPhones can now be unlocked with this software. The same should be true of car engines.

  13. Ronald
    January 15th, 2018 at 10:57 | #13

    Smith, a camera with a kill switch could be installed in every non-robo car, but it is far better to let drunken suspended drivers kill people through lousy illegal driving and use the money to instead reduce the incidence of malaria and dysentery, as more lives will be saved. Or if you are one of these people who are picky about dotted lines on maps, cameras/sensors that stop cars backing over children should save more lives, even though I think we are considerably better at not backing over children than Americans.

  14. Smith
    January 15th, 2018 at 11:10 | #14

    “Bad drivers should have their cars driven by robots.”

    Or they could take an Uber. It’s probably cheaper, once you factor in rego, insurance, depreciation, maintenance and petrol/electricity.

  15. ChrisH
    January 15th, 2018 at 16:23 | #15

    Smith, it’s dangerous to get your information from talkback radio and the Murdoch press. I can’t find any other sources in a quick search that make, or that fail to contradict, your claims.

    Craig Whittall certainly had a bad driving record. But he was not driving unlicensed. This 51 year old grandfather was driving on P plates, after getting a licence and having done his suspension and penalties for past offences.

    I don’t think the number of his past driving offences was anything like 60, but sources are unclear. It is, of course, hard to look up someone’s full criminal history without personal permissions.

    He is widely reported to have been heading home after attending a methadone clinic, the nearest to his home. Whether he was responsible for the accident, whether he was impaired in driving by drugs, or whether he made a driving error, will no doubt be assessed in the likely inquests.

  16. Smith
    January 15th, 2018 at 17:19 | #16


    You are right that he had a licence. But he was a textbook case of a bad driver who should never have been given one.

    My source for the 60 offences (actually more than 60) is the New Daily, the newspaper of the industry superannuation funds aka the trade union movement.


  17. sunshine
    January 16th, 2018 at 06:19 | #17

    I heard most of the accidents with driver-less cars on test were small bumps from other cars due to the fact that the driver-less are more cautious than human drivers .They surprise people because they wont break rules. For example ,when merging or entering a busy lane it is normally necessary to barge a bit – driver-less dont do that .If driver-less cars are identifiable they will be easy to bully .

  18. Bruce Bradbury
    January 16th, 2018 at 08:50 | #18

    How will driver-less cars react when teenagers start playing ‘chicken’ – jumping out in front of the car and forcing it to drive off the road? Will they then be programmed to not give priority to pedestrian lives to discourage this behaviour?

  19. Loco Jack
    January 16th, 2018 at 10:38 | #19

    @Smith I do not think you are representing Craig Whittall’s driving history correctly. From the article you cited “…reportedly had a long criminal history of more than 60 offences, was a known drug user and was on his P-plates… Whitall had been jailed for driving while disqualified and had only recently got his licence back when the crash occurred.”

    I would suggest that though we know at minimum he has had his license suspended and been convicted of driving while disqualified, the remaining 59+ offences may have nothing to do with driving. We just do not know.

    Speaking only personally, I look forward to the introduction of driverless cars, because I am lazy!

  20. David Duffy
    January 16th, 2018 at 21:04 | #20

    If this was based on the PLOS One paper of Favaro et al (Sep 2017), then those authors calculate that the AVs experienced accidents 10 times more frequently (given distance travelled) than human drivers, even though they were largely low speed rear-end, and so scored as “not at fault”.

  21. Smith
    January 17th, 2018 at 08:14 | #21

    @Loco Jack

    The headline says “serial traffic offender”. “Serial” means “repeatedly committing the same offence and typically following a characteristic, predictable behaviour pattern”.

  22. Tom Davies
    January 17th, 2018 at 14:04 | #22

    You would think that the worst 20% of drivers would be priced off the road by their insurance companies pretty quickly. Why does that not happen?

  23. Smith
    January 17th, 2018 at 15:05 | #23

    @Tom Davies

    They might be priced out of of insurance. Doesn’t make them priced off the road. There’s no law that says you have to insure your car.