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John Palmer: How I Was Wrong About Driverless Cars

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Being able to admit when you’re wrong can bring about an openness to new ideas. John Palmer tells us about his changing attitude on driverless cars.

It’s important to admit when you’re wrong. A while back, I made a dinner bet with a good friend that driverless cars would fail. I felt strongly that the judgment required to navigate the crazy streets of San Francisco was beyond the reach of the algorithms that these cars might possess. At that time the streets were packed with sensor-covered vehicles. But there was always a driver in them, at the ready and–I assumed–regularly assisting.

Fast forward to now, and those same cars are roaming the streets without drivers and they are…wait for it… Doing. Just. Fine. Normal speed, normal behavior at lights and intersections, exceptionally polite with pedestrians. My 18-year-old son reminded me that the self-driving cars are never distracted, never talking on the phone, and never in a rush.

I was recently behind a driverless car approaching the famous Haight & Ashbury intersection. We pulled up behind a garbage truck blocking our lane, right before a stoplight. Incredibly, the car auto-piloted itself around the truck and made a beautiful left turn at the light. It performed at least as well as the average car with driver would have. Narrow streets, hills and all, these unpiloted cars have become so routine, that I don’t even marvel at them anymore. They are just another car on the road. Certainly there are remaining challenges–I’ve read that these drone cars get confused by construction zones and emergency situations. But if the past is any indication, they will travel that next segment of the learning curve, just fine. Can a thank-you wave from the driverless car be far behind?

I’ve been a naysayer, but I think I’ve been wrong. My friend will likely win our bet, but I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the dinner that I’ll pay for. Maybe we’ll take a driverless car to get there.


With a Perspective, I’m John Palmer.

John Palmer is a partner at a small private equity firm and lives in San Francisco.

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