Recently the question has come up, why am I so obsessed with autonomous vehicles?

Recall the scene from the Blues Brothers when John Belushi says, "I hate Illinois Nazis." Well so do I! Who doesn’t, right? Nazis were total dicks. Directly and indirectly, they killed a lot of people. All of my grandparents signed up to fight Nazis. I like to imagine that if we had another plague of murderous Nazis, I would do something constructive to help.

Ironically after Belushi delivers that line, the next thing that happens is that the eponymous main characters drive a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan into the Nazis. While the Nazi problem seems to be under control (well, let’s hope), driving cars into non-Nazi people does still seem to be a problem. I fully understand that automobiles are not quite as lethal as Nazis, but talk about damning with faint praise. It’s easy to get everyone to agree that Nazi levels of conspecific lethality and brutality are super bad and deserving of some kind of serious corrective action. What then is the percentage of that calamity which would still deserve a similar kind of serious response? How about half a Shoah? Would that be enough? How about a third? My opinion is yes, especially if it has gone on for a century.

Curious to put it into perspective, I came across the World Health Organization’s 2013 Global status report on road safety (summarized nicely with interactive graphics at According to that report, over a million people each year die in traffic accidents. The report conservatively guesses that for every fatality at least twenty people sustain non-fatal injuries. I’ll leave it to your own philosophical inclinations to contextualize exactly how bad that is. I hope we can agree, that’s it’s definitely not ideal.

You might be thinking that sure, people in Iran drive like idiots (so the statistics say), but what about the USA? The following graph from this article suggests that there is a lot of carnage here too, 32k deaths.


This NSC 2015 Report claims that the rate has gone up in 2015 to 38,300 dead, reversing a trend of modest improvement. What’s interesting is that they also mention 4.4 million injuries requiring medical attention in the US alone. That is 115 injuries per death. It suggests that the USA has better reporting of accident details than many countries in the WHO report. It seems likely that twenty injuries per fatality is extremely conservative indeed.

Section 3 of the WHO report is neatly and accurately titled Transport policies neglect pedestrians and cyclists. No kidding? Worldwide, 5% of traffic deaths involve cyclists. Of course there are methodological problems. (N. Korea and Uzbekistan gave themselves perfect scores on the WHO road safety compliance survey. Good job, you guys!) In the terrifying USA, cyclists riding through the valley of the shadow of death account for 2% of traffic fatalities. In the Netherlands, a cycling utopia where bicycling is the safest, it is a whopping 25%! This shows little more than the base rates of cycling.

What is clear worldwide is that the people driving the cars are not the ones dying. For example 1% of Congolese fatalities are passenger car drivers. It’s 6% in China (where 35% die on motorbikes). In the USA and Canada about 50% of the fatalities are car drivers themselves. The data from various countries was too rough to really say with accuracy, but it’s pretty clear that from around two thirds to three quarters of the traffic deaths in the world involve pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes, and passengers.

But you get the idea. This is a problem of horrific violence victimizing innocent people on a massive scale. When I was young, I used to think that the best and most obvious plan was to get people out of cars and on to saner alternative transportation options. What was wrong with that idea is that Americans are far too addicted to ever give up the shortsighted convenience of their cars. Even if it kills them. And all life on Earth.

However, when I first heard about autonomous cars around the time of the DARPA Challenge, I could see that a technological fix was possible. Although I’m disappointed by the unnecessary lack of progress, I still believe that road carnage is a serious problem and autonomous vehicle technology can cure it. My frustration with the current state of the art has compelled me to personally work on solving the problem.

When I think about what Silicon Valley is doing to "make the world a better place", I’m pretty unimpressed. That scene mostly seems to be predatory companies building a user base they can cash out on. The ostensible benefit is usually pitched as some kind of convenience or efficiency. What a joke! All the efficiency that Silicon Valley has produced in the last 25 years (minus the collective time wasted diddling social media) is nothing compared to the efficiency gains of not needing to waste valuable labor and expertise driving cars. Eye on the ball people.

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In 2013, an idiot driver threw my car into a truck so he could stroke his phone. I was lucky to walk away and this isn’t even the dangerous part of my road use.

The indignity of feckless idiots literally trying to maul me to death on a daily basis provides its own obvious motivation. But I think the problem is legitimately grave enough that those who can contribute to a solution should. If it seems like I take idiot drivers as seriously as my grandparents took Nazis, it is because I do.