Why no self-driving cars? Blame the politicians

  • The average commute in San Francisco is 32.2 minutes. The employed civilian population is 837,442.
  • There are 251 working days per year, so the average worker spends 16164.4 minutes/11.23 days commuting per year.
  • That is 13,536,747,464.8 minutes – 25,754 years for the Bay Area population per year.
  • Assuming a life expectancy of 80 years, 322 lives are wasted every year due to the commute time in SF.
  • Given an average San Fransisco per capita income of $46,777, the average hourly rate is $23, which means the commute costs San Franciscans alone $5,189,086,528 – five billion dollars.
  • If 100% of the working population adopted self-driving cars then AI convoys and anti-congestion algorithms could reduce the time by at least half, and turn the remaining commute into relaxing/working time.

Consider the lives saved and productivity gained if self-driving cars were adopted by the USA. This does not include the 30-40 thousand people killed and over 2 million injured in car accidents over 90% of which could be prevented by self-driving cars.

The technology for self-driving cars exists now. Google’s self-driving cars have driven millions of accident-free miles. All that’s missing is a few algorithms for snow and other conditions.

That is the potential upside. But you dear reader, know perfectly well that self-driving cars will be delayed by decades because the politicians will not let us. Our legal system is set up in a way that makes it impossible for car makers to innovate because of prohibitive liabilities and regulations intended to ensure our safety, and our nationalized road system blocks innovation in traffic safety.

This is a coordination problem – trillions of dollars and millions of people* will die because our political system prevents markets from satisfying consumer values. The true cost of the inadequacies of our present political system is beyond calculation.

* 3,551,332 people died in car accidents since 1899

The ownership experience & mass production

The way we value mass produced objects is weird.

For example, I love my MacBook. I value it as an essential daily tool, but I also value it for its beauty and other reasons which go beyond immediate practical value, in the same way that I suppose a woman might feel the same way about her diamond necklace.

My MacBook happens to have a small scratch. I would exchange it for an identical laptop without the scratch without no any sense of loss or regret. Furthermore, unless Apple screws up, I would happily exchange it for the next year’s model, even if it looks very different from my current one. If my MacBook were lost, I would go straight to an Apple store, purchase an identical model and restore it from backup. I would mourn the loss of my money, but not my computer, since I would have an essentially identical replacement. This is different from the way we value non-mass produced things. I would turn down an offer to replace my daughter for an equivalent child, even if that child had a 10 IQ point advantage. (I was going to offer a comparison to a possession rather than a person, but I realized that virtually every possession I own is mass-produced, so I don’t have the subjective experience of owning an heirloom. Even my family photos are fully digitized and infinitely reproducible.)

Information technology products have the additional property of only being valuable within a certain time period. After my computer becomes outdated, it will become essentially worthless, even in mint condition, without any loss of original functionality. This is very different from my watch, I would be perfectly happy to wear to my grave if it lasts that long.

So what is it precisely that we value in consumer products? You might say that we really value is the ownership experience. It’s an intangible property, which sounds like marketing-speak. But it helps to understand many strategies of successful companies.

Colonize the universe or starve

For 99.99% of the two million years that humans have been around, the entire species lived in harmonious balance with nature — that is, perpetually on the edge of starvation, acquiring the bare minimum of sustenance necessary to sustain the present population.

Every now and then, a change in the environment, a new disease, or perhaps a tribal conflict caused a mass die of some percentage of the population. This provided a rare opportunity for a surplus of food to become available, and the population quickly grew in prosperity and (presumably) happiness until the ecological balance was restored and the state of constant near-starvation returned.

But then — after a few hundred thousand years of building ever complex tools, homo sapiens sapiens was able to sustain a surplus of food production despite unprecedented population growth. Whereas it has previously taken a million years to add an additional million sapiens to the population, now each additional million was added in about a month.

The 200 years following the industrial revolution saw accelerating productivity improvements which led to accelerating capital accumulation, which incredibly, allowed per capita wealth to grow faster than the population, raising the standard of living in industrial countries over a hundred fold.

Now, unless you happened to grow up in a remote Amazonian tribe and then somehow integrated into modern society and managed to read this on Facebook, you have no idea what a “hundred fold improvement in the standard of living” means. You probably went camping, or saw a romantic nature documentary and think that lack of indoor plumbing, having an average of 80% of your children die in infancy, habitually going up to a week without food, being left for dead after major injuries or old age, and lack of Facebook access is not that big of a deal. Maybe it isn’t – I don’t know either.

Anyway, for biological or cultural reasons, we tend to extrapolate our current status of ecological surplus and assume that it will continue indefinitely, despite having experienced it for only .0001% of human history. In fact, economic incentives suggest otherwise: in the long-run, social groups which value higher reproductive rates will eventually dominate the human population and return homo sapiens to subsidence levels. We might still have Facebook, but we’ll be back to perpetually surviving on edge of starvation, save for the brief times after a catastrophe kills of much of the population and we can thrive on the surplus capital.

Any group that values large families will tend to dominate the species given sufficient time. It might be the Mormons, Amish, Hutterites, or probably some new group that places an explicit value on maximizing the reproductive rate at the expense of all other values. Unfortunately, having as many children as biologically possible does not correlate with other values that most of us consider desirable, but that is how ecology works.

Some have suggested population controls, but those would only work with a dictatorial single world government, and those are hard to sustain indefinitely over geological time spans. In other to avoid a return to the state of nature, we must either sustain the present excess of capital growth over population growth indefinitely, or find a way to permanently limit the population size. Since the earth is of finite size, sustaining the surplus capital growth requires the difficult task of colonizing the entire universe. On the other hand, it might be even more difficult to restrict the reproductive rate, given that any group which violates the restriction could gain control over the whole planet.

Are we homo superior?

In response to Brian Cox’s Human Universe presents a fatally flawed view of evolution:

 

Are human beings superior to all other animals? Can homo sapiens be said to be at the “top” of the evolutionary tree, rather than just another iteration? To answer this question, one must identify some universal criteria, rather than a species-dependent one. (For example, an obviously species-subjective perspective might be that human women are the best-looking.)

The current mainstream view seems to be that this is impossible. It is therefore wrong to say that humans are “more advanced” because we have space stations, because space stations are only important to humans. Dolphins might blow beautiful bubbles and they are just important to dolphins, while giraffes value having the longest neck as the most valuable aspect of an animal. To me, this view (that many philosophers and biologists actually believe) is absurd.

I think there are some obvious essential instrumental skills which make humans special. These essential instrumental skills are universal in that they enable the achievement of many other goals. Reasoning, technology, and social organization are important not because they are important to homo sapiens, but because they are essential to a wide range of value achievement as such. If lions learned how to domesticate and breed gazelle, they would still be achieving a lion’s values, but they would do so using a superior, more energy efficient process. This applies especially to human ability to contextually transform the environment at large scale to support higher population – an instrumental skill held by no other species.

In fact, humans exceed the intellectual abilities of all other species by orders of magnitude – a fact that some biologists mislead about when presenting science to the public because they think this view serves either their personal interests or the species they praise.

To the extent that our biology has enabled these instrumental skills, we can indeed say that the human line “ascended” the evolutionary ladder.

What is a corporation? Key misconceptions

Following this week’s Supreme Court ruling, there is much confusion about what legal rights a corporation has and how it is different from other groups:

In a free society, any person has the right to associate with any other person by mutual consent. As long as both parties consent to their transaction, no third party (be it a government or anyone else) has the moral right to prevent or punish their interaction. This is as true for friendships, romantic relationships, and political advocacy as financial transactions. The only difference is that financial transactions exchange material values whereas social interactions exchange non material values.

A business – be it a sole proprietorship or a multinational corporation is just a group of people who share a common purpose. Their motive may be profit, but it may be something entirely different (such as changing the world with a new product, or just getting paid to do something cool, such as fly planes or invent new things).

The primary difference between a corporation and any other type of business is limited liability. Anyone who does business with a corporation (be it another business or a consumer) agrees that any liability incurred by the corporation covers the assets of the corporation, but not the individual assets of its employees. For example, just because you own Wal-Mart stock, Wal-Mart’s debtors cannot demand all your personal assets as collateral.

It’s important to understand that limited liability does not apply to criminal law. That is, if an employee of a corporation commits a crime, he is still personally liable for his actions. In no way does acting on behalf a corporation shield people from breaking the law. (Of course that is not universally true, but that is a corruption of the law, not an aspect of limited liability.)

Furthermore, individuals acting on behalf of a corporation have the same rights as individuals acting on behalf of any other group because people do not lose their rights by the nature of the voluntary associations they enter into. It should make no difference whether you act on behalf of yourself, a political pressure group, a union, a sole proprietorship, or a corporation – you do not lose your rights as a human being because you represent a particular association of other human beings acting toward a common purpose. Silencing the speech of an individual because he represents a particular group is censorship – no matter what the purpose of that group is.

If you really want to get business out of politics, get the government out of business. As long as governments try to control corporations with regulations that go beyond the protection of people’s property rights, corporations will have an incentive to control governments. Interventionism creates a vicious downward cycle hardly unique to corporations – first a lobby tries to extract special privileges from some politically neutral group, the group hires lobbyists to defend itself, and ends up using the influence it has gained to extract privileges at the expense of another neutral group, which must defend itself in turn. Campaign finance regulations just hide that process from the public and make it more difficult for non-elites to get elected or have a say in government. The only real solution to the problems caused by interventionism is to end interventionism – to separate government and economy.