Self Driving Cars Will Be Here Before a National Train System, and Maybe That’s OK

robot car google

An article at Wired today discusses an Audi A7 prototype that can drive itself on highways. This is another notch in the growing belt of automated cars, championed primarily by Google’s amazing self driving car technology. Numerous automakers are getting in on the fun since this is clearly the future direction of driving and safety technology (whether you like it or not).

Let me cut to the chase: the ultimate future of all of this is a completely automated system of driverless cars, and this will likely happen before the public transit dreams of progressives like myself–like a national high speed rail line–are realized. This is due to three basic reasons: (1) safety; (2) cost; and (3) accessibility. All of these three things get better if we give into our robot overlords. To some this sounds terrifying, boring, or a mix of both. To me it sounds like a future we desperately need.

Robot Cars Will Be Safer

33,000 people died in the US in auto accidents in 2012, the last year for which we have complete data.  90% of these are due to human error. An estimated 1.2 million died worldwide in 2010.  Beyond the suffering of these tragic deaths, both fatal and non fatal auto accidents cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year. A completely automated system of autonomous vehicles would be safer and would drastically reduce these numbers.

A computer hypothetically can, with the right software and hardware, outdrive the best human operator. Driving is judging safe movement within a three dimensional space.  That is basically math.  Computers are really good at math.  The technology is currently a clumsy and young, but even in its current iteration, Google’s driverless car program has gone over 300,000 miles with only two accidents–both due to human error.  They currently struggle with snow and ice and other things that may seem simple to humans–such as on the fly pattern recognition, like discerning between a rock and a person.  In time, however, it is possible to iron these deficiencies out. After all, only ten years ago autonomous cars could not go beyond the first 7.5 miles of DARPA’s  142 mile autonomous car competition.  Only 18 months later, five vehicles finished the entire course.

Contrast this to eternally inevitable “human error.”  Despite thousands of laws, regulations, and tests designed to ferret out incapable drivers and restrict our behavior on the roads, we still make mistakes, and we always will.

What if the computer breaks? Well, what if you have a heart attack? What if a bee flies into your car and distracts you? The mechanical operation of a computer is probably much less prone to random catastrophic failure than you are. For one, a computer probably has better judgment regarding its functionality. It can be programmed to run diagnostic checks, have a failsafe, and generally can determine whether it is safe to use in a much more objectively accurate way than a human.  Humans think “well I only had two beers” or “it’s not snowing that hard, I don’t need chains” or “I can make that yellow light if I just speed up…” A computer won’t make those vague judgment calls, or at least it will make its judgment calls on more objective and verifiable data. Like a black box, you will be able to go back and look at what caused an autonomous vehicle to crash, compared to the litigious and vague nature of current accident reconstruction.

In fact the biggest safety obstacle is the problem of a future world inhabited by untrained drivers who have never operated a motor vehicle, and who are tasked to take control of an uncontrolled AI car. Or, the ethical implications of the trolley problem; i.e., how do you program a car to react in a situation where all potential outcomes lead to death or catastrophic injury? These are not problems with the hypothetical technology however. These are human problems.

 Robot Cars Will Be Cheaper And More Efficient

As already mentioned, auto-accidents take a tragic and constant toll on our society. Beyond the tragic human suffering of these accidents, there are also huge economic costs. These costs are spread throughout our economic system in the courts, the health care industry, the auto industry, and almost every single other economic sector since travel via automobile is such an intimately intertwined part of almost every American’s daily life. Less accidents lowers this significant toll.

There are other less obvious cost savings however: an entirely automated system will mean less traffic, more parking, more efficient fuel usage, more time for human drivers to do other things, quicker car trips, reductions in insurance costs, reduction in the need for traffic and parking enforcement, and a generally more efficient transportation system for society.

Of course, alot of these benefits depend on a completely automated system to realize their full potential.  While judging things like safe driving distance  or optimal acceleration and deceleration are things autonomous vehicles currently excel at under limited conditions, communication between other vehicles is another important goal. (Perhaps more important.)  Consider this terrifying yet shockingly-safe computer simulation of a completely automated 4-way intersection, for instance.

Or the benefits of reduced traffic in a system where every car drives at a safe distance from one another without stop and go traffic. Or a highway merge where all the cars know where every other car is going and react accordingly, without the madness associated with chaotic interchanges like the Bay Area’s “MacArthur Maze.” All of the little things that cause daily rush hour traffic jams other than accidents–following too closely, improper merging, unsafe or sub-optimal traveling speeds that necessitate needless braking–are eliminated or reduced in a system where all the vehicles cooperate on an agreed upon optimal flow of traffic.  A utilitarian driver’s paradise, if you will.

Traffic jams cost an estimated $121 billion a year,  waste an average of 38 hours a year of every American’s life, and consume an unnecessary 1.9 billion gallons of fuel  per year.  The benefits of an automated system on our economy, our happiness, and our environment  outweigh the freedom and “enjoyment” of driving yourself around.  (How much do you really ever enjoy driving yourself or others around, really?)

And then we get to parking. A truly autonomous vehicle could reshape the urban landscape.  In today’s “holy shit are you kidding me?” fact of the day, over 30% of city business district driving consists of people driving around looking for a parking spot. On average, one third of an American city’s landscape consists of parking spaces. Your friendly robot car could just drop you off and go park itself somewhere, or drive home, or just drive around waiting for you.  That space could be reduced and used for other purposes. Urban planning would change to accommodate the reduced need for parking, which currently dominates the hated (by me, anyway) “big box” parking lot syndrome of modern suburban development. The benefits are transformative and are a realistic means of achieving the public transportation and mixed use goals of a lot of progressive urban planners. More retail establishments could exist in higher density urban environments since the need for big parking lots would be eliminated, for example.

Robot Cars Are More Accessible

A robot car could eventually drive anyone anywhere.  This one is a no-brainer, really. More people could get more places on their own. Society has already made this a goal with laws like the ADA and its state analogs. Driverless cars would further these aspirations in addition to the benefits already described above.

This Is Not A Fairy Tale–This Can Happen

This brings us back to the title of this post. Regional high speed rail systems in the United States remain, unfortunately,  mostly pipe dreams. Only one high speed rail line exists in the United States between Boston, New York and Washington D.C. (and it operates at a relatively “pedestrian” average of 68 m.p.h.). A myriad of others remain either in limbo or dead.  Even California’s high speed rail line–voter approved and currently under construction  between Los Angeles and San Francisco–won’t be open until 2020 at the earliest. (That is assuming the myriad of budget and political problems get ironed out and it actually gets completed.) A national high speed rail system would be impossible if it had no regional systems to connect.  In the meantime, automated cars already have the infrastructure in the form of roads. People already are used to driving or getting a ride to work, whereas (in America, at least) most people simply do not use trains. Automated cars also would not need the massive government subsidies currently floating high speed rail proposals, because auto manufacturers are actively in the process of developing and deploying the technology.  And once they do, with hypothetical autonomous cars zipping along on the freeway at much higher speeds, and for a longer sustained period than human operators, will the need for regional high speed rail systems be as acute as it is today? Arguably not. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.


Court Allows Class Notice Via Social Media

A sign of the times? A New York court approved Class Notice via social media in a lawsuit against Gawker Media LLC. FLSA Overtime Law Blog has the scoop. Gawker is being sued in a class action by current and former interns for allegedly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Since it is a class action, a majority of the interns probably do not know about the case, and the Court wants to inform them of their right to participate.

Interns are usually young. Gawker is a well known blogging website. Ergo, social media is probably an excellent means of getting in touch with these young, tech savvy class members. The Court noted in its Order that “89% of 18—to 29–year–olds use social networking sites.” You can find the Order here.

I applaud the Plaintiffs’ creativity and I will be keeping this Order in my research file for my next class action.  Class actions are hard.  Max Kennerly’s Litigation and Trial blog (if you’re a litigator add that to your weekly reading list) has an excellent post detailing just how difficult some class cases can be. Even if you “certify” a class action (i.e., get a Judge to agree that your single Plaintiff can represent a larger number of as-yet unnamed similar Plaintiffs) you are still faced with the huge hurdle of actually getting everyone in the class to participate. When class participation becomes a problem depends on whether you have an “opt-in” or an “opt-out” class notice procedure. In California, the default rule is all class cases are “opt-out.” This means you are in the class unless you tell the Court you are not.  Class certification in California therefore usually goes like this: (1) the court certifies the class; (2) the lawyers agree on the form of class notice and submit it to the court for approval; (3) class notice goes out to class members; and (4) class members either opt out of the class after receiving the notice, or they do nothing and remain as class members. The Federal rule, by contrast, requires you to opt-in after being notified.  This means you are out until you tell the court you are in. Practically speaking, under the Federal rule it is harder to get higher participation in the actual class. If too few people opt-in to the class, then you have no class case, or you have a lower amount of exposure to the Defendants and thus less leverage to settle the case.

I do not know the average opt-in rates for Federal class cases, but in California it is customary to expect as few as 15-25% of the class to actually participate or even claim any settlement once the case is settled. Yes you read that right. Once the case is settled and the class is told “hey, there is a pot of money with your name on it, just tell us you want it” only around 1 out of 4 class members claim the money.

Why? Sometimes a class settlement is so nominal it might not be worth your time. I once got a settlement for about $10 in some consumer case against Dell. I didn’t mail that in, even though it was basically free money. (I should have!) In my experience however I think the biggest culprit is stale class member contact info. I have had low participation even in cases where class members were potentially getting hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it was primarily because we just could not find people. This is often the case in wage and hour class cases against places with a lot of turnover, such as restaurants or other low wage establishments.  In these cases sometimes you are trying to find people employed as long as eight to ten years ago, and whose records might not be complete or accurate (or might not even exist at all). Think about it–do you think someone could have found you when you were 27 based on a single snapshot of info garnered from when you were 19? Might be kind of hard.  And in some cases if participation is too low, then your class is decertified. That means it is dead, gone, kaput, bye bye.

This is obviously not how anyone wants class cases to go (except defendants). Defendants actually bank on low participation by crafting one-sided class settlements with two pay-out numbers. These are called “reversionary settlements.”  They basically work like this:  you have one big number that might sell with a court and with an over-eager Plaintiffs’ counsel, but getting that pay out is dependent on some totally unrealistic % of participation. There is a second smaller amount that kicks in if there is not enough participation in the class.  Defendants like these deals because they know that so long as the participation number is high enough, they will never have to pay top dollar to settle the case. For this reason  devising creative and effective ways to increase class participation in settlements or during the class notice period is always a high priority for Plaintiff’s lawyers who want their clients to get paid.

Enter social media. A brilliant idea and something more courts and more Plaintiffs should suggest for class notice. When you move or change your phone number, odds are you are still keeping your Facebook account or your Twitter profile. Odds are you might even check those more than you check the mail. (How many times did you physically open your mailbox this week? How many times did you open Twitter or Facebook? Exactly.) High participation in class cases is not only good for class members, it is good for the integrity of the system, since class action cases and the lawyers who prosecute them get a bad rap in the media, mostly thanks to a constant dose of reported “coupon” settlements that look like a windfall for lawyers. This perception is not representative of the actual class action landscape and it should change. Class cases are one of the most effective tools in the consumer or the employee’s arsenal for enacting real, positive social change on behalf of a large number of people whose individual claims might not be worth enough to get to a court room. (Or worse, people might not even know it is happening to them.)  Class actions are literally the answer to being “nickel and dimed.”  They exist for that reason. It’s why big business would love to kill the class action device entirely (and spends billions every year trying to do so). Hopefully  the internet and social media will help push the needle in the other direction.



Robert Reich Reads My Mind

From my Facebook feed, where me and Robert Reich are totally besties:

We need to raise the minimum wage, invest in education and infrastructure, lift the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes, resurrect Glass-Steagall and limit the size of the banks, make it easier for low-wage workers to unionize, raise taxes on corporations with high ratios of CEO pay to average worker pay, and much more. In other words, we need an agenda for shared prosperity.

I particularly like the last idea. Any other agenda items he is missing? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely, how likely is it we get three of those done in the next six years? I’d guess it’s about a 2. This makes me sad.

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