The Most Important Technological Advancement Since the Internet

October 14, 2014

It should come as a shock to no one that car accidents have a great economic and societal impact on all Americans. Entire industries have come to rely heavily, if not entirely, upon the basic reality that people will get into car accidents. For example, it has become statutorily required for motorists to possess automobile insurance. Furthermore, the health system must treat millions of injuries every year; after these injuries, drivers often seek to bring suit against the responsible party. Finally, police attempt to maintain safe roads by enforcing traffic laws. If anything is clear, it is that, in many ways, car accidents have become the lifeblood of many different entities, both in government and the private sector.
What would happen though, if quite suddenly, there were no more accidents? No more drunk drivers? No more speeding? This seemingly fantastical world is not so out of reach. However, the end of the car accident will not be due to people becoming better drivers, or cars more safe. Instead, humans will be taken entirely outside of the equation.
The autonomous car is not a novel concept. Many companies are already fielding prototypes and some even believe that the autonomous car is only a few years from road readiness. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, just recently made the bold claim that “maybe five or six years from now … we’ll be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination.” Up until now, not much has been discussed regarding the implications of an entirely antonymous roadway. The idea just seemed to far off to warrant conversation.

Now however, as what was once science fiction becomes anything but, several major consequences of the end of the human operated car must be confronted.

The most obvious consequence is the decimation of the automobile insurance industry. As it stands, there are as many as eleven million accidents a year. Collisions are so frequent that the government has mandated that all licensed drivers obtain insurance. As a result, the car insurance industry now employs a quarter of a million people and has swelled to two hundred billion dollars per year in revenue. If people no longer operate their cars, these accident figures will plummet. This is not to say that the entire industry will collapse, but fewer accidents necessarily equates to a lower demand for insurance.
The most obvious benefit is the decrease in fatalities and medical expenses that would result from fewer accidents. In 2009, thirty-five thousand people died as a result of an automobile collision. In fact, road injuries are the ninth highest cause of death in the world. The implications of thirty-five thousand fewer deaths is staggering. Perhaps just as staggering is two million fewer injuries, especially considering how stressed our health system is today.
Not so obvious, however, is the affect the autonomous car will have on the legal system. If people no longer drive their cars, there can be no speeding, drunk driving, or the running of stop signs. Whereas today police departments devote much of their efforts towards traffic law enforcement, the future will see the demand for these services diminish tremendously. There are three consequences worth noting. First, there will be a precipitous drop in revenues from traffic violations. According to the National Motorist Association, issuing speeding tickets raises somewhere between 4.5 billion and 6 billion dollars in the United States each year. Second, as a result of there being fewer traffic violations, the demand for law enforcement officers will diminish. In 2008, local police departments had about 593,000 full-time employees, including 461,000 sworn officers. To what extent would the autonomous car alter the makeup of the police force? Finally, without the traffic stop, police lose a powerful investigative tool. Many searches are predicated upon probable cause that is found upon cursory inspection of the car. Whether that is from visual identification of contraband through the window or the odor of marijuana, police come into closest contact with the citizenry during the traffic stop. Without traffic stops, many could go months without every coming into contact with an officer.
Lastly, lawyers will see a major shift in the demand for legal services. Without car accidents, a large source of negligence suits is eliminated. Without traffic violations, and the searches that can arise from them, there will be less criminal defense work. Not all is bad news, however. Lawyers will be on the front lines of the paradigm shift that is the autonomous car. Surely police will have to shift to new investigatory methods to replace the traffic stop. Almost certainly, entire new areas of law will emerge.