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Kleppner: Self-driving Cars

Here in Vermont, the fact that the radar on self-driving cars can see what’s going on 30 cars in front of you in a giant traffic jam is less important than the fact that the radar is now so good it can see deer in the woods near the road and black ice far ahead on the road, and it can tell the car to slow down before you hit either of them.

We may soon have a world where cars never crash into anything – not other cars, not bikers, not pedestrians, not trees, not animals, not utility poles. This is the greatest benefit we’ll get from driverless vehicles – so much death, injury and misery avoided.
Then there’s the money: we’ll never have to take the car to the body shop. We won’t need liability or collision insurance. As a society, we won’t have to pay for all the time cops spend on speed traps and other traffic violations, and we’ll be able to close every traffic court in the country.

We’ll also be able to stop spending money on speed limit signs, guard rails, stop lights, directional signs and everything else that’s required for human-driven vehicles.

There will be other benefits, too. We won’t have to teach our teenagers to drive, or worry about them when they get their licenses. We won’t have to try to convince our aging parents to give up their licenses. We’ll never have to worry about drunk, drugged, drowsy or distracted drivers again. And we’ll never have to drive around looking for parking, or try to squeeze into a tight spot, since the car will drop us wherever we’re going, and pick us up when we’re done.

When we don’t have to drive, we’ll be able to do whatever we want during our commutes... text, email, work, read, eat... perchance to sleep. Aye, there’s the rub.

I wonder if anyone will listen to the radio in self-driving cars. Riding in a self-driving car is going to be more like commuting by train than like driving a car. And not many people who take the train to work listen to the radio during their commutes.

Radio survived the advent of the movies, and of television, and of the Internet. It would be ironic if self-driving cars are the technology that finally kills radio.

I don’t know how well founded this concern is, or if it’s a reasonable concern whether there’s anything we can do about it, but I’m worried.

Bram Kleppner is CEO of Danforth Pewter, Board Chair at the Population Media Center, and Co-Chair of Vermont's Medicaid & Exchange Advisory Board. His mission is to take steps large and small to fight global warming and to bring the world's population into balance with its renewable resources.
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