In his most recent talk, Cory Doctorow talks about the likelihood of the existence of self-driving cars in the future. In it, he points out that humans are awful at driving. We kill ourselves and each other in cars all the time. I spent some time thinking about that this morning, and thinking about the way people get squicked out by new technologies that do something for them which they were used to doing for themselves. It occurred to me that there would probably be way more outrage about self-driving cars killing people than people killing other people with cars, even if there were far fewer deaths by self-driving cars than human-piloted cars.
And there would have to be less. There's no way a self-driving car would make it to market if it were only as good as humans at driving. It would have to be far better at driving, at adapting, at dealing with bad roads and reckless drivers, than the average human. It would have to be comparable to a stunt driver in capacity, so that it would be comparable to a very good driver when piloting a badly damaged car -- because who maintains their car as well as they really ought to?
But, still, humans would hate it.
I think the reason is that there wouldn't be someone to blame, when people died. The amount of death caused by cars used to horrify people -- I remember once hearing it referred to as genocidal in scale. But we got used to it, and we built a comfortable narrative in which it's always someone's fault. The drunk driver, or the reckless driver, or the person who shouldn't have run that light, or the person who didn't take care enough of their car.
If the cars are self-driving, there won't be that excuse. It won't be easy for people to talk their way out of caring about accidents. So, at least until we adjust as a society, people will be horrified at every death by a self-driving car.
Apart from that, it likely won't be the same people dying. Drunk drivers will be dramatically less a problem. The same with people who text while driving. The people killed will be random, or will be based on the quality of the roads they're driving, or the quality of the maps their GPS uses.
I hope that none of this is a problem, because I hope that we shift to comprehensive public transportation before we have cars good enough to drive us. I know the latter will be within my lifetime, so I hope the former will be, too. Public transportation will cut down on deaths even more, although I imagine people will still be more afraid of it -- people are more afraid of planes than cars, so it stands to reason people will be more afraid of vacuum tubes and buses, as well.