Bill Gates on self-driving vehicles

Bill Gates has just taken a self-driving ride around London and it’s got him excited. He was a passenger in a car run by Wayve (Microsoft is one of Wayve’s investors). Last year, I spoke to Wayve and some other folks for a podcast that explored how London represented a hard case for self-driving. The story goes that if the technology can make it there, it’ll make it anywhere. (Is it too much to call this a ‘Sinatra strategy’?).

It doesn’t really matter that Gates misrepresents the SAE’s levels of automation. Those levels aren’t very helpful anyway. But his comments about the Rules of the Road are revealing. Unsurprisingly, they reveal a mix of technocracy and technological determinism. Gates is not great at prediction, but that doesn’t stop him trying. He insists,

AVs will help create more equity for the elderly and people with disabilities by providing them with more transportation options.  And they’ll even help us avoid a climate disaster, since the majority in development are also electric vehicles.

We could easily work through scenarios that lead to opposite outcomes. The real question – What it would take to make the desirable outcomes more likely? – demands attention to policy as well as technology. Gates says, ‘Humanity has adapted to new modes of transportation before’ but doesn’t acknowledge that the adaptation and innovation have varied from place to place. Rather than sleepwalking into another technology, as many places did with motorcars, we should be more sophisticated this time around. Gates tells us ‘The rules of the road are about to change’. Changes are indeed likely, as we argue in this paper, but thankfully societies can have a say when it comes to rules. We don’t have to get pushed around by the predictions of technologists.

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