Don’t Feed The “Ban Driving” Trolls

They see me trolling...

Cars and the people who love them have taken a bit of a trolling in the last week, as autonomous car car firms and the people who love them become increasingly convinced that a sea change is in the offing. The trolling began with a Buzzfeed article that told car fans to “go f*ck a tailpipe” if they think their love of driving outweighs the moral obligation to reduce the 1.2 million lives that are lost each year in cars, and things took off from there. The latest salvo, from Fusion, argues that driving should be made illegal within 15 years. Though self-driving cars are unquestionably the most consequential challenge to face cars in their more than hundred years as a cornerstone of modern society, the conversation around this massive opportunity needs to become a lot more pragmatic and constructive if we’re going to make the most of it.

The main thrust of this new wave of anti-car arguments is that lots of people die on the road: 1.2 million globally per the WHO and more than 30,000 each year in the United Sates. This makes cars one of the biggest health risks in the world, especially for people between the ages 5 and 45. The statistics are staggering, when compared to other activities that inspire more public fear: Google’s self-driving car program lead, Chris Urmson, summarizes this disconnect brilliantly by pointing out that US on-road deaths alone are equivalent to a full 737 falling out of the sky every day. Nobody would even consider flying with that kind of safety record, and yet people rarely think of driving as the most dangerous thing they do every day.

The fact that emerging self-driving technology is prompting a conversation about the number of lives lost on the road is, without question, a good thing. Because everyone invariably thinks of themself as a good driver, the problem of on-road safety has been far too invisible for far too long. But those who self-righteously tout the “solutionist” approach of  banning human drivers in favor of products that are still years away from their initial launch seem far more interested in trolling than actually understanding or solving the problem. And as much fun as it is to get a rise out of traditional car lovers, this subject is too important to be left to the trolls.

For one thing, the idea that traditional automakers don’t care about auto safety but the technology firms developing autonomous cars do simply doesn’t wash. Ever since the government began regulating auto safety in the 1970s, the number of on-road deaths in the US had been steadily dropping until the last year, when highway fatalities began to jump precipitously. Though some of that increase is due to Americans driving more as gas prices fall and the economy recovers, it’s clear that driver distraction from smartphones and other tech toys is a major part of the problem. So, far from saving the auto industry from an imagined apathy towards safety, Google and Apple’s self-driving cars may merely help keep their core products from pushing on-road deaths upward.

Besides, as anyone who was concerned about on-road safety before the self-driving car infatuation took off knows, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to be harvested before we need even consider banning driving. About 40% of all on-road deaths still involve alcohol, making breathalyzer ignition interlocks a far more affordable first step towards better auto safety. About 50% of drivers killed on the road were not wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash, making seatbelt ignition interlocks another logical measure for the pragmatic auto safety agenda (and one that was shouted down by the public when last proposed). Improved and mandatory driver education could also easily help bring US auto deaths down towards reasonable levels without relying on self-driving cars or banning human driving.

These three proposals alone, none of which require any new technology, could reduce on-road deaths to the point where the self-driving car pitch loses much of its moral urgency. Add the new auto-braking systems that 10 automakers have said will be standard in new vehicles in the near future, and self-driving cars may actually start looking like an expensive and convoluted solution to a shrinking problem. By that point, Google and Apple and its tech-media allies will need to do a far better job of explaining the other, more-subtle benefits of self-driving cars like their more efficient utilization rate, improved traffic experience, ability to free wasted commuting time for productive or recreational purposes, and a variety of other, less troll-friendly advantages.

For their part, car lovers and automakers need to stop giving the trolls exactly what they want: outraged defensiveness at any criticism of their hobby. Though for many cars are a familiar, comforting escape from the complexities and ambiguity of a rapidly-changing world, there’s no excuse for failing to acknowledge that cars are as complex and ambiguous as anything else. Silicon Valley trolling has been critical in driving the conversation around auto safety forward, and the moral wake-up call should be embraced not fought. Moreover, self-driving car technology has generated huge public interest in cars at a time when they’ve become more commodified and less interesting than ever.

Even if self-driving cars do become rapidly adopted on interstates and in metropolitan commuter zones, they will simply replace the forms of driving that noone could possibly romanticize. On the inefficient but exhilarating rural roads, the kind that are almost exclusively represented in car commercials, human-driven cars are unlikely to ever be replaced by robots. After all, if Amish communities today can still use horse-drawn-buggies surely America’s rural roads will remain open to Miatas and Carreras well into the future. Rather than a zero-sum game, the rise of self-driving cars will likely lead to a rich tapestry of autonomous, semi-autonomous and human-driven vehicles, each in use where they best serve the needs of customers. Instead of trolling each other, fans and detractors of cars could try working together to identify how to improve on the dangerous, soul-crushing reality of commuting without eliminating driving as a unique –and deeply America– form of recreation.