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Thoughts on the impact of self-driving cars:

We are hearing more and more about self-driving cars; Tesla's latest model has some self-driving features. Google is testing a car and Tim Cook president of Apple refuses to say whether Apple is testing a vehicle. Our relationship with the automobile was described in that last century as a "love affair." For many Americans, the car allows them to feel like an explorer or a cowboy or even a fighter pilot or an astronaut as they make their way to and from work. Many Americans spend so much time in their cars that they feel as if they live in them. Sadly, many homeless people actually do live in their cars. What will the impact of self-driving cars be on our society? 

I am not normally a futurist but I do know something about the law, and I have some predictions about Americans' relationship with law enforcement, and the civil tort system will change as a result of self -driving cars.

First, we can predict that as soon as the technology becomes readily affordable, Americans will gravitate to it. Americans already want to multitask while driving. Indeed we all know that texting while driving, eating while driving, and sleeping while driving cause an enormous amount of accidents. The idea that we can engage in those behaviors safely while driving will be very appealing to many.

We also can count on insurance companies to charge dramatically higher rates for people who continue to drive manually. This change in rate structure will drive (pun intended) many other Americans who prefer the pleasure of being the master behind the wheel into self-driving vehicles. Driving manually will become an expensive hobby.

The police are going to pull far fewer vehicles over for driving unlawfully. This will make life easier for criminals who will be able to transport their drugs or other contraband with a much reduced fear of a traffic stop. On the other hand, it is not all good news for the criminals. Data about their travel routes will be routinely kept by the insurance companies. And I imagine that law enforcement will get access to that data on a routine basis. The police will learn where to keep surveillance, and it will be easier to obtain search warrants on particular vehicles and the identity of the drivers.

So the result in terms of our privacy is a mixed bag. The insurance companies will have more data on us and our travel habits. I suspect they will sell that data to companies to market to us based upon how we travel. Those records will be subpoenaed in divorce proceedings. All of this is a great loss of privacy. But, the dramatic reduction in the routine traffic stop will be a great increase in privacy. That is how most Americans interact with the police, and is also the source of many negative encounters between police and African American citizens.

There is an entire industry dedicated to bad and drunk driving. Many police officers spend much of their time on patrol especially at night pulling over drivers. Many prosecutors are kept busy and many local governments are well funded by the fines and fees resulting from driving convictions. Numerous lawyers, probation officers, and alcohol testing companies depend upon the flow of driving arrests as a source of income. Of course, the bulk of accident lawyers and the lawyers defending the insurance companies also depend upon the income from drunk drivers. Most of the money in the tort system however, goes to healthcare. People are injured and killed in enormous numbers as a result of drivers. I am sure we will still have some injuries and fatalities as a result of computer glitches. But I suspect that accidents that cause bodily harm or death will drop by 90%. This will be wonderful news for people who would've otherwise been hurt or killed and their loved ones. But the economic changes will be enormous. Trauma centers and emergency rooms will see a sharp drop in demand for their services. So will rehabilitation workers, such as physical therapists and occupational therapists. The economic impact will be dramatic and affect people's livelihoods and career choices. In short, I predict this technological change to have a greater social impact than most people realize.

For information or questions regarding this post readers can contact the author David Nacht.

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