I have a hypothetical scenario and would be interested in your thoughts.

Imagine that a company creates something that they call the Antcar. The Antcar is a self-driving car where you basically put a destination into a GPS device and it will drive you there. By and large, it is not meant to be driven. There may be controls (like a steering wheel and breaks) for an emergency, but it’s all pretty limited. The entire point is that it will take you where you want to go.

The first question is… would you want such a car? Would you trade the ability to drive for the ability to do other things while the car drives itself? Would you pay $12,000 more for the privilege? $8,000?

The second question, though, is the real question. Let’s say the Antcar (and its competitors) work very well. They’ve been on the market for a while and now the premium is down to $8,000 per car. The initial hopes that it would cut down on automobile accidents was premature. They don’t always play well with human drivers. The Antcar manufacturers, meanwhile, start a pilot program in an eastern European city and then a few cities where Drivercars are banned and only Antcars are allowed on their roads. The results are astonishing in terms of safety improvements. Traffic engineers in the United States start proposing that the US consider doing the same.

Below are some factors to consider. Feel free to point off if I am way off-base about something, but for the sake of this hypothetical accept what I say as true. I’m less interested in how you think Antcars would really work and more interested in how you would evaluate the tradeoffs.

Pro: Safety! Car-against-car accidents reduce by 90%. Cars running off the road reduce by 98%. Pedestrian accidents reduce by only about 10%, but the victims of remaining accidents are caused by pedestrian error. Accidents where pedestrians follow the correct traffic signals are reduced by 98% (the remaining 2% are Antcar malfunctions). No drive drivers, no exhausted drivers, no reckless drivers results in considerable safety improvements.

Neither: Operation costs are roughly the same. The taxes to account for increased costs of road maintenance are offset by much lower insurance premiums.

Con: The cars are more expensive. In today’s dollars, you can add about $8,000 to the cost of any given car. However, the increased safety means that driving smaller cars becomes more possible. So while a 4-door economy car might cost $20,000, you can get a 2-seat Smart-size car for $15,000 and a one-seat bucket car for about $12,000. Nobody would have to buy the Antcar right away because there would be a ten-year transition period, but you would have to factor these higher prices into future cars purchased.

Pro: A more productive populace. People can (sorta) work in their cars. I say “sorta” because they can’t lay papers out everywhere or anything cause the car would be turning and breaking and even if there were some signals to alert the driver, it could be kind of tough in a lot of circumstances. They can unwind during the drive rather than when they get home. Cell phone calls are now guilt-free.

Pro: The makers of the (capital-A) Antcar enjoy a market advantage but not an absolute one. They’re willing to submit to standards so that their cars can cooperate with cars made by other companies. They already do somewhat, but they understand that the standards are going to become much more rigid. In other words, they would not have a monopolistic advantage.

Con: The government would have to administer these standards. A cynical person would point out that they may not always necessarily do so with the public interest in mind.

Con: Everywhere an individual driver goes becomes a matter of record. Law enforcement and courts can subpoena it the same way that they can subpoena phone records. A drug dealer is arrested and theoretically they can look through the records and see everybody that’s visited that house or street in the last thirty days or longer or whatever the records say. Divorce proceedings could unmask precisely where the husband or wife has been. And so on. Definite loss of privacy.

Pro: The ability to investigate where people have been would help the police solve crimes. It could also help innocent people establish alibis.

Con: No more driving. No more getting a turbo-engine car that you can rev up. These cars would still be available, but you really couldn’t drive them anywhere. The engines in the Antcar (and its competitors) would be pretty standard in terms of capabilities. Having a muscle car would not be nearly as advantageous since the cars would be navigating in a more cooperative manner.

Pro: Reduced traffic times. No more accidents means no more accidents causing delays. No red lights at intersections where nobody is coming. Lane merges because much less painful. Eventually it will get to the point that traffic lanes themselves are no longer necessary, though the antcars are not yet ready for that.

Con: Driving in inclement weather can become difficult or impossible. These things are directed by satellite so things that disrupt a satellite signal would make the car not work. When signals are lost and are cutting in and out, the car can let you direct it (you tell it to turn right ahead and then you tell it when to turn left and so on), but it’s a real hassle.

So… what do you think? Here are some options, though I’d like you to elaborate if you have any further thoughts.

a) I would absolutely support banning drivercars. Safety is a premium consideration. Not just the lives saved, but the freedom from fear on being on the road after 2am would absolutely make it worth it.
b) I would probably support banning drivercars. I’m concerned about some aspect of it or another, though.
c) I couldn’t support banning drivercars on libertarian grounds. People should never lose the freedom to drive (and conceal where they’ve been) even if it results in the loss of life and a significant reduction of accidents.
d) I can’t support it because I don’t trust our government to play fair with standards and not play favorites.
e) It’s hard to answer your question because you didn’t explore what I would consider to be a significant factor and/or your prediction on some aspect or another is so far off-base I can’t suspend my disbelief that far.
f) What’s an Antcar? I’ve never heard of that. I don’t think this technology exists. I also don’t understand the meaning of the word “hypothetical.”

Update: New Pro and Con added.


Category: Coffeehouse, Road

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

21 Responses to HypoThursday: Antcars

  1. PeterW says:

    This is a topic I’ve thought about before as well, and I look forward to hearing the reactions.

    One obvious caveat to the privacy issue is that it should be possible to hide or delete the records of previous locations. There’s no particular reason why it will definitely be available to DHS, unless they made it a mandate.

  2. web says:

    Yeah. I don’t see why the Antcar should bother “remembering” every destination you point it to.

    Sure, you should be able to save a favorites’ list (grocery, home, work, Mom, etc) of destinations. That seems like a feature that would be desired. But if you go somewhere else? Dunno.

    Possible effects on the world that might make the Antcar nonviable, however:
    – Sometimes, you don’t know where you are going. You’re looking for an “oh that’ll hit the spot” restaurant, for instance.
    – Sometimes, you know “how” to get somewhere, but not the address. Or the “GPS” address is wrong. Or the maps aren’t updated properly/quickly or don’t have new construction taken into account. (A number of maps, for example, don’t have the street my soon-to-be house is on).

    – Why not just make all “Drivercars” carry a little transponder that announces to them “Drivercar here, may not respond to Antcar signals” and program the Antcars to simply give them a wide berth? You’d need to do the same for things that by necessity need to be Driver-based, such as cop cars, ambulances, and fire trucks.

  3. web says:

    Also: I could see the “Antcar” programming working better for freeways/highways than for residential/business areas (where a lot of “unplanned” stops take place). So for instance, why not compromise and have “launch zones”, spots where you drive your Antcar in, switch it to Antcar mode, and then input your “exit zone” destination whereby it’ll pull out, park itself, and prompt you to take over manual control again?

  4. ? says:

    Put me down for (c). Which is too bad, really, since my family makes several lengthy car trips every year, and being able to snooze through them would have been nice. But I can’t really see using it for commuting since I don’t commute very far.

    Do the antcars coordinate with each other? If they do, then we could pretty much do away with stoplights and stopsigns, except for pedestrians. (Let’s do away with pedestrians. We could replace them with antwalkers.)

  5. john says:

    Driving is fun. Too much of my life is already controlled by foreign entities. I don’t want a personal taxi.

    Does it need to be said? WE ARE NOT ROBOTS! WE DON’T WANT TO BE GOVERNED BY ROBOTS!

    No good can come of this.

  6. web says:

    5.Driving is fun. Too much of my life is already controlled by foreign entities. I don’t want a personal taxi.

    To a point, there are times in my life when driving is fun – for example, going to particular destinations I like, driving through a park with some good music from the speakers, etc.

    On other occasions, such as the common drive to/from the workplace, I wouldn’t mind having the car handle the driving. It’s not ‘fun’ for me, but rather a source of stress.

    That’s why I suggested the compromise – perhaps major highways/freeways, the main commuter trunks, should have a “Antcar only” section (for those who wish to simply set their autotaxi running) whereby they can avoid the vast majority of the commute’s stress.

  7. web says:

    Also, put me down a little for (d). I do have a general distrust of government’s ability not to play favorites.

  8. trumwill says:

    What I had in mind was actually not so much that the Antcar remembered where you’d been but rather that the “switchboard” that guides traffic. There are ways you could mandate privacy and that the records would not be kept, but I simply can’t imagine the government would do that and I don’t think that the political climate would force them to. At first, the argument would go “Look, if you don’t want the records kept, don’t get the Antcar.” (because it was a choice). At the time of the discussion of the Antcar becoming mandatory, enough people had simply gotten used to the loss of privacy that the popular will to add a privacy feature was no longer there.

    I imagine that looking for a “just hit the spot” restaurant would be easier with the Antcar. You could look for a restaurant on the console. I also imagine that the days of “knowing how to get there but not knowing the address” would probably come to an end pretty quickly. Once knowing the address is all you need to know about how to get there, that’s all people will learn.

    Unplanned stops wouldn’t be a problem if you were paying attention. You simply tell the car that you want to make an intermediate stop and it redirects. I do that sort of thing with my GPS all the time.

    As far as segregating the cars by road… that may be possible. But one of the two primary advantages, the increased safety, relies on there being no human drivers on the road. And the way Web describes, you lose a lot of the convenience, too, if you have to get to the “antlane” by driving yourself. It’s possible that, if the Antcar initative was rejected by the public, that they would consider that possibility. Honestly, though, I almost find that the worst of both worlds and would probably prefer to stick the the antcars and drivercars sharing the road without the added safety.

  9. trumwill says:

    Phi,

    You’re right. By and large traffic signals and the like would no longer be necessary. Reduced road-times (because of there being no signals and because of fewer accident-caused delays) was supposed to be a “Pro”, but I forgot to add it.

  10. web says:

    Will,

    Perhaps we’re thinking of different systems? GPS, natively, doesn’t “phone home” – it knows by finding satellites where it is, but it doesn’t tell each individual satellite “hey you I’m here.” GPS Navigators download updated maps from time to time, but otherwise calculate their routes on their own onboard processors.

    You on the other hand think there would be some central repository of everyone’s location, like the lo-jack systems some people have in their cars now (or like the “On-Star” system does) by default?

  11. trumwill says:

    Yeah, you’re looking at GPS’s as they are while I’m looking at how the antcar would use them and what it would make them into. I didn’t outline that very clearly in my post. But yeah, for the sake of traffic management the driving is more of a collaborative exercise between centralized computers and the antcar’s internal navigation system.

    Such a system could be avoided, but it’s not really in the best interest of the government nor the makers of the Antcar to do so. And particularly since the Antcar is optional at the outset, I don’t see the political will to prohibit it from happening because people that object to it can (until the second scenario above is proposed) simply drive drivercars.

  12. Barry says:

    I’m not sure why it would tend to be a given that the record of one’s journey would be anything but a private record – possibly like a medical record that could be subpeonad – but not available to the casual searcher, even a P.I. investigating infidelity, etc.

    Also, I have no fears about “privacy” being invaded, not being of the libertarian bent.

    I would think that Antcars could be programmed for a number of driving tasks:

    1) Most common would be “Drive me from Point A to Point B.” Which would take you from home to the office, or Girlfriend’s House to WestSide Multiplex, or whatever.

    2) I can also see a mode that says “Drive me here to Main St, then cruise mode between Broadway and 5th”. Which would allow you to drive at a slower rate of speed down a particular street and have the ability to sight-see, search for a restaurant, check out passing hot women pedestrians, whatever, then turn around and come back if you don’t countermand the command. Since the parameters are built-in, it should be able to follow these simple directions.

    3) You should also be able to change its instructions whenever necessary. If you’re Traveling from Point A to Point B, then halfway there suddenly remember you were supposed to be going to Point C, a simple command (commonly referred to as the “Oh Shit!” command) it would immediately turn around at the nearest safe exit and set a new course to Point C.

    Why would it all be necessarily satellite based? Why not use existing cell tower-type technology in every city to direct local traffic without relying on satellites?

    I think the difference between manufacturers, since standards would be, well, standard, would be in efficiency and comfort, amenities and style. Which car is the hottest looking, best equipped, nicest multi-media system, best fuel efficiency, etc would be most expensive and popular.

  13. trumwill says:

    Barry,

    #1-3 are all possible with the Antcar, except maybe the ability to go slowly and sightsee from your car. Private investigators would not be able to get riding records, though lawyers and government officials could legally with a subpoena. And, of course, abuses in the system take place so you would have to expect some people having access to the records that shouldn’t, but that would not likely be commonplace.

    I think in terms of satellites because of my GPS. There are also technical reasons why I believe satellite would be preferable (to the people making the decisions) to a sort of cell-phone-tower model, but that’s all beside the point. The question is not what an Antcar would look like or how it would actually be implemented. The question would be, if it had been implemented this way, what would your thoughts on it be.

    It’s quite possible that a mechanism could be developed that would circumvent all the downsides while protecting the upsides. The world, however, rarely works like that. So I’m interested where people would see the tradeoffs.

  14. web says:

    I just had a ghoulish thought… the chances are quite high of someone’s antcar delivering them to school/home/work dead of a heart attack, now too late to help, as opposed to from the scene of an automobile accident (skipping over the possible risk to other drivers) where lots of people had immediate warning and reason to stop, render aid, call 9/11, etc.

  15. Barry says:

    For me I think the biggest tradeoff comes down to the lack of “freedom” – i.e. driving with the top down, wind in your hair, wherever you want, with a big engine under the hood and a beer in your hand, etc etc. I’m not sure the good ol’ boys down this way could handle that kind of auty-mation…. Where’d they put their gunrack?

  16. thebastidge says:

    C and D

  17. Peter says:

    Our legal system being what it is, the insurance premiums for an antcar maker would be totally unaffordable.

  18. trumwill says:

    If the Antcar were demonstrated to be safer than the average driver, I would think that a lawsuit about what an Antcar did wrong would have a pretty hefty uphill climb. Even if it can’t be released in the US due to liability, once they become commonplace in Europe and Asia and Canada (which are not quite as litigious as we are), I think that there would be more people wondering “Why can’t we get that product here?” than people itching to sue them at the occurrence of the first accident.

    It’s a good point, though. Possibly one of the reasons that the US might be the last nation to adopt such a vehicle.

  19. Barry says:

    My son reminded me tonight, as I described the contents of this post and the question it posed to him: “Oh, so like ‘I, Robot'” (which we had just watched a couple weeks ago. I thought about it, and said, “Yeah, just like that”. And the car in the Will Smith movie seemed to indeed work just like you suggested – auto guidance with manual options (not recommended at high rates of speed).

  20. ? says:

    It occurs to me that the antcars would have no need for arbitrary speed limits. The only limit would be the performance of the car itself (and the level of noise and vibration the passengers will tolerate). So this technology might actually stimulate demand for “muscle” antcars.

  21. stone says:

    I’m too frightened by the prospect of things going awry while I sit there helpless to alter the course.

    Other than that, it all sounds great.

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