Self-Driving Cars, Tires, and the Great National Stupidity

If you want to live an optimal life, don't make suboptimal choices.

Do you like being alive? I do. And I try to do as many things as possible to add years to my life. In quantity and quality. When I see a red-hot bbq grill, for example, I don’t lean over and press my face against it. Third degree burns might not be immediately fatal, but you don’t need to be Nostradamus to know the pain and scarring would be suboptimal. 

An optimal life requires common sense. For example, when a friend recently asked me if he should abandon his wife and children, relocate to Las Vegas, rent a Lamborghini, get some coke and a suite full of hookers, I said No, that would be a suboptimal set of decisions. Nothing could stop him, however. So I gave him the best advice I could.

“You will regret leaving your wife and kids,” I said. “And you will eventually go back to them. That would be an optimal outcome for a suboptimal decision. Let me share the advice my mother gave me when I hit rock bottom. Instead of buying cocaine, you should buy the finest scotch you can afford, and savor it. If you must sleep with escorts, never use a condom twice. Most importantly, if you must drive a sports car—especially a rental car—make sure it has the best possible tires, and always check the treadwear.”

My mother is very wise. I know what you’re thinking, how dare she condone such behavior, and how dare I pass on her twisted wisdom? It’s simple. If there were more mothers like mine, there would be fewer broken homes and drug overdoses, fewer STDs brought into relationships, and fewer car crashes due to stupidity.

Yes, stupidity. Let’s face it. When people say, Oh, I had a car accident, they’re lying—or worse, they’re just stupid. There are no car accidents. There are car crashes. An accident is an unforeseen event. The overwhelming majority of car crashes are single car events, which means they were the culmination of the driver’s poor choices. Poor choices lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Safety features are the reason people who have one car accident eventually have two. Or three. Safety features are what ignorant people use to avoid learning how to drive safely.

In my world, the translation is simple: Idiots get what they deserve. 

For example, I just witnessed this winter’s first snow hit New York City. Did I open the secret drawer in my closet, put on a tiger-striped T-shirt and chaps, and go cruising in my Morgan 3-Wheeler? No, I saved that outfit for another time. Also, no one makes snow tires for the Morgan. Even if someone did, I still wouldn’t trust them. Morgan ownership means your family can save money on your casket: A steel chassis wrapped in a wooden frame? Make one mistake and they can just bury you in it. What makes Morgans unique is that they don’t even pretend to be safe. The 3-wheeler lacks any safety options, which is why I’m so cautious in it. Safety features are the reason people who have one car accident eventually have two. Or three. Safety features are what ignorant people use to avoid learning how to drive safely.

Am I being harsh? That snowstorm brought NYC traffic to a standstill. Not me. I put on my winter boots and took the subway. When I got home I got on Twitter and marveled at the stupidity of people. I just bought a Tesla Model 3 with all-wheel drive, tweeted one idiot, and I got stuck in the snow. That tweet should shatter any notion of a correlation between wealth and intelligence. Teslas are expensive cars, but that one can afford a Tesla doesn’t mean one understands physics, the harshest of all mistresses.

In what universe are all-season tires sufficient for all seasons? The one where people trust words over common sense. All-season ≠ good in all seasons. All-season is a catch-all. A compromise. If all-seasons were great in snow, snow tires wouldn’t exist. If all-seasons were great summer tires, summer tires wouldn’t exist. All-seasons are the sneakers of tires. You wouldn’t wear sneakers instead of skis, or snowshoes to the beach. And yet people persist in the folly of using all-seasons through harsh winters. Then they crash. Sometimes they die.

These are not accidents, but inevitabilities. These are the consequences of ignoring common sense, the advice of experts, and trusting in mere words.

Take contraceptive jelly. I once had a girlfriend whose father was a doctor. After many months, I greeted him with Hello, Mr. Werner. He didn’t like that. I didn’t go to medical school, he said, so some boy trying to sleep with my daughter could call me anything other than doctor. He then launched into a tale of why those with actual knowledge deserve respect. Advanced degrees, he explained, are awarded to those who know the meaning of words laypeople use without understanding. That very morning he’d had a patient with an unexpected pregnancy. Why? Because rather than follow his instructions for the use of contraceptive jelly, she had smeared it on her morning toast and eaten it. Why did you eat it? he asked. Because, she said, it seemed easier than using it the other way.

The folly of trusting one’s life to words over the advice of experts is a characteristic of children and fools. Children have an excuse. Adults do not.

Which brings us to self-driving cars. Poor choices are the moral raison d’etre of self-driving cars. Every other justification pales in comparison. I have faith that technology can solve problems, and one of those problems is road safety. Someday, maybe, self-driving cars will work in most places, in most conditions. Between now and then, they will only work in some places, sometimes. The irony is that for self-driving cars to work in more places, say, places where it snows, they will need much better software….and snow tires. If, like our deluded friend in the Tesla, you don’t have snow tires, all-wheel drive isn’t going to help, and nor will self-driving technology. It’s almost inconceivable Tesla could ever enable “Full Self-Driving” in snowy conditions unless snow tires were installed, which would require a tire/car interface I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist on current Teslas.

Tesla’s aren’t magic. They’re cars like any other, and subject to the rules of Mother Physics, like every other.

If you want to drive in winter, buy snow tires. If you want to be driven in winter, whether by a human or self-driving technology that doesn’t exist yet, you will need snow tires. If you’re unwilling to buy them, your self-driving car won’t move in the winter. It won’t be able to, because the self-driving engineers are smarter than people who don’t believe in snow tires and won’t allow their self-driving tech to take the kind of risks idiots do every winter.

Which brings us back to square one. Safety isn’t merely an option one can buy. It’s a state of mind that starts with educating yourself as to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Education always leads to better outcomes, ignorance to the suboptimal. It’s the choice between winter driving a Morgan 3-wheeler in chaps or taking the subway, trusting Business Insider over Barrons, a trip to Vegas over family therapy, listening to marketing people over race car drivers, and eating contraceptive jelly instead of…well, you get the idea.

Don’t be an idiot. Death is suboptimal.

Editor-at-Large Alex Roy is also founder of Geotegic Consulting and the Human Driving Association, as well as host of The Autonocast. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and buy his book, The Driver.