Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars

jlightfield asks:

Autonomous cars, do they change how you will work in 10 years?

Do they change how I work? No, because I work from home, on a computer, which means I don’t have to go anywhere else to work. A car is generally not involved in my workflow at all.

Which is not to say I can’t wait for autonomous/self-driving cars. Are you kidding? These things will be the best thing ever for me. Why? Let me count the ways:

1. There are two types of people: Those who enjoy driving, and those who enjoy being at places where driving has to happen to get to them. I am in the latter group. Driving, as an activity, doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I drive because I have to go somewhere, not because I enjoy driving to get somewhere. That being the case, a self-driving car takes the part of driving I like the least — the actual driving — and gives it to the car to do.

2. Which means I will have more time to do the things I like to do, i.e., loiter on the Internet, listen to music, maybe do a little writing, talk to other passengers in the car. This will make the drive-time more enjoyable.

3. I get road ragey when I’m driving but not when I’m a passenger, so self-driving cars would make the transportation experience a hell of a lot less anger-inducing for me.

4. Other people on the road are idiots, so self-driving cars being used generally would vastly reduce the number of stupid people behind a wheel that I would have to deal with.

5. I’m getting older, and eventually I’ll get old enough that no matter what I’m likely to be a danger to others on the road. Self-driving cars will still allow me autonomy without endangering others when I drive.

6. Also, come on, let’s face it, I’m already not the world’s greatest driver. The nation’s roads are likely to be marginally safer even now if I’m not the one behind the wheel.

7. Nap while the car drives to my destination? Don’t mind if I do!

8. I don’t drink alcohol, but for those friends of mine who do, the idea that they could get home safely without endangering themselves or others is a nice thought.

And so on.

Now, I do realize that there are legitimate privacy and security concerns that will need to be addressed before full automation comes to cars — we don’t want our cars broadcasting where we’re going to all of the world, and it would do no good to have cars that are crackable so someone can hijack them with us in them. There are also practical issues like who is liable in a crash involving an automated car, whether or not a human always needs to be alert to take over driving, and other such things. All excellent points to consider.

But even so: self-driving cars where is mine I want mine now now now now. It’s fair to say I want a self-driving car more than I want, like, colonies on the moon. Colonies on the moon are nice, but a self-driving car is going to be great for my life now.

Although, again, won’t change how I work at all. Sorry.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

67 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Driving is a chore I endure. When I was 17 and drove like an idiot (trying to catch air going down Dolores street in San Francisco at 3am) it was more fun. But now that I drive like a sane person it gives me no joy.

  2. I. for one, eagerly anticipate the day the robotic overlords assume control of our roadways and vehicles. I feel a lot safer on them then than I do now with all the other knuckleheads out there on the road, making me fear for my safety.

  3. Why do you want a self-driving car? Even in rural areas (but maybe not rural+mostly empty areas like Wyoming) self-driving cars could herald the end of private car ownership. Certainly that’s part of the appeal.

  4. Just read a book on this very subject – “Self Driving Steamrollers”. I’m not sure I agree with all of the conclusions (it’s predicting a huge societal shift in the next 4 years), but it’s a fascinating read.

  5. @Ian Monroe

    I see self-driving cars heralding the end of private car ownership (outside of collectors) as a feature, not a bug. The only reason I own a car is so that I can drive places, but I do not enjoy driving. I do it because I want to be somewhere different and walking is too slow.

    I would *much* rather someone else deal with the maintenance and upkeep and registration and all those headaches. Plus, if I don’t own a car, I can order whatever sort that I need at the time! A tiny thing that’s fuel-efficient (even if the “fuel” is electricity, this matters) for most drives, but something with more cargo room if I’m going on a long haul, or a truck if I’m picking up a mattress from some dude on Craigslist.

    I don’t have to own a truck and get bad mileage, or a fuel-efficient car and then rent a truck. I can just get what I want!

  6. If my self-driving car also mows the lawn and can pick up takeout food for me, I’m even more in favor of them than I am now.

  7. Point 5 and 8 are what I think of. My mother couldn’t drive at night for some time due to lack of good night vision (laser surgery improved this), so she had to plan her days around that (especially in winter). And my brother is autistic and finds driving has too much going on for him to focus on doing it. (He took lessons enough to find that out.) Self-driving cars means my mother wouldn’t have to worry at night, especially if she’s coming back from visiting my sister via the Interstate. And that means my brother could still use a car without my mother having to plan her work schedule around being available to transport him to his job/doctor’s appointments, etc. Heck, they could even share the car if it could drop Mom off, and drive itself home to pick up my brother for work.

  8. I would love a self-driving car. I’m disabled and can’t drive, and Houston’s public transportation, given a city this size, is pitiful. My husband also travels a lot for work, and I can’t always go with him, so when he’s not here I’m effectively housebound. A self-driving car would solve that problem nicely.

  9. I’m expecting within the next 10 years some cash desperate community will give Google full control over their transportation infrastructure to go fully automated in order to bail them out of debt. People will wail and cavil about how it is the end of the world and destroying their liberty until a couple years pass and we see how much better they have it than the rest of us. Then there will be a gold-rush as every other city tries to switch over.

    I think a fully automated transportation infrastructure would be absolutely amazing and will be massively cheaper on both an individual and societal level. More than individual automated car ownership or subscription style car access the place I see the biggest impact will be for mass transit because what has always been the most expensive and time consuming part is the last mile service. If the transit system has a couple dozen autonomous cars at every hub they can carpool 4-6 people who are heading to roughly the same destination straight to the doorstep faster and more cheaply than running 95% empty bus through sprawling residential streets for one pick up or drop off. That sort of vastly improved speed and reliability would be enough to push many people out of needing a personal vehicle, particularly since it likely would go in hand with a rise in short, economical rentals.

  10. As a recreational cyclist who also bikes to work every day, you can probably guess my feelings on automated cars.

    In point of fact, I think automated cars must already be on the roads here ‘cuz I see an awful lot of people driving while looking at their phone.

  11. I CANNOT WAIT for self-driving cars for ALL the reasons you mention here. It is the one thing I won’t budge on. I think it’ll be awesome. I don’t care what anyone says.

  12. Great points, but I fall into the category of drivers who actually like driving (most of the time). That’s not to say the autonomous feature wouldn’t be of use to me, just not necessarily that often.

  13. I think autonomous cars could decrease the work day for those people who live a little far away from their offices. Instead of spending 1 hour to travel to work + 8 hours + 1 hour of travel back to home, they can potentially remotely work inside the car, saving two hours everyday.

    But then, autonomous cars could lead to more traffic. What if 8 year-olds start using these cars to get to schools?

    I am still not convinced about the privacy and safety of these things though.

  14. People like control. Will folks be able to give up the control of a self driving car? Will driverless cars be able to coexist with self driving cars – efficiently? Will self driving cars get exclusive lanes? Will Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton be debating about automobile liberty?

  15. I saw “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” when I was probably too young and I can tell you that self-driving cars is still my #1 Childhood Nightmare and I may have to move if this becomes an actual thing.

  16. I actually enjoy driving, and I’m good enough at it that I admit to sneering at people who can’t parallel park. (My usual rant is how if someone doesn’t have good enough command of the vehicle to parallel park, they don’t have good enough command of the vehicle to be safe on the roads.)

    THAT SAID, there will certainly come a time in the not-too-distant future where I will be aged enough that my command of the vehicle will be compromised. And already I lack the stamina to do endless long roadtrips like I used to when I was young. So I will be very happy to have self-driving cars available in about 20 years. I wish my mother had one now.

    I suspect that in the era of self-driving cars, there will be a lot more rideshare type things and a lot less private ownership of vehicles. Much cheaper and easier if you can just order up a car to be there when you need it, and then it can be out moving other people around rather than sitting parked somewhere.

  17. Completely agree with you. I can’t wait to have my own personal bus. “Take me to Ballard Market please, Hal.” Sit back and check facebook on my iPad. And, yes, my first self-driving car will be named Hal.

  18. As others have pointed out, owning a self-driving car is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you advance the tech to the point that the cars are allowed to wander off by themselves unattended, you can stop worrying about urban parking because the car can go off to park itself in a garage miles away, or better yet, you don’t even bother owning one and just whistle up a self-driving cab.

    I’m currently contemplating a downtown job, and parking at commuter rail stations is a problem. If we had self driving cars at both ends, we might be able to turn a couple lanes of the expressways into cities into more tracks for commuter rail and leave the expressways to commercial traffic.

    So far we are still talking about replacing existing vehicles. The next step is to design cars that don’t presently exist. We could have vehicles one-person wide, which could ferry commuters around and fit them two-abreast in a lane. We could potentially have tiny cars that are too small to hold a person but are big enough to deliver packages, or a pizza, or a bundle of laundry. While it might not work for hot food, many missions for a vehicle like this would be just fine with a vehicle that drives fairly slowly, if the math for capital cost vs. fuel costs favored it. What if every street included a couple 3′ wide lanes filled with ‘bots toddling along at 20 mph, bundled together into convoys with just inches between vehicles, delivering packages.

  19. I voluntarily surrendered my driving license a few years ago due to ME/CFS, and the effects it has on my cognitive ability. The only thing I’d add to the self-driving car is to make it wheelchair accessible – just roll in, buckle the chair, buckle yourself, and go.

  20. And while I do enjoy the sensation of driving any enthusiasm I might gain from the activity is crushed under current traffic conditions and the drivers who comprise it. For that I’d rather buy a CBR900 and yolo to my heart’s content as the mood moves me.

  21. I’m with you all the way on this. I hear people demanding that driverless cars be banned until they are “guaranteed 100% safe” – as if they’re not already much, much better drivers than humans are.

  22. I wonder if Google is teaching their self-driving cars what to do when they encounter Amish buggies on the road?

  23. There are two unexamined assumptions here that bear closer examination. First, that a significant number of people will accept or even embrace self-driving cars. In a nation of rugged individualists, the majority of whom seem to violently object to any government telling them what to do (no matter how sensible), this seems at best unlikely. It seems more probable that every NRA member will wake up tomorrow and decide to hand their arsenal over to the local police, retaining only Nerf guns for personal protection. My bet would be that unless this is mandated by law and rigorously and draconianly enforced, it is the worst and most dangerous drivers who will refuse to accept autonomous vehicles.

    Second, this assumes that the engineers and programmers who develop these autonomous vehicles will learn from 30+ years of ubiquituous computing and decide that it’s more important to develop robust, usable, hacker-proof software than it is to shove crap out the door in time for this year’s auto show. And that their corporate masters will let them do this, since the C-level executives are usually more of a problem than the programmers*. Again, see above re. NRA and enlightenment.

    * To be fair, modern computation is a nasty conceptual problem that has not been solved and may never be solved. But I’ll accept the phrase “software engineer” the day programmers wear little silicon rings analogous to the iron rings that real engineers wear to remind them that their decisions affect real human lives.

  24. I’d rather have a driver. Because if you have a driver, you can sniff at them and slowly roll the window up between your seat and theirs because you simply can’t bear dealing with the staff today, thank you.

  25. Just to point out that ‘self driving’ cars were invented over 2 centuries ago – they are called ‘trains’.

    All of the advantages of autonomous cars – and you don’t have to wash them. Of course – a good rail system needs a significant amount of public support for what is public infrastructure, support which does not seem to exist in the US.


    But – in places where it does, trains are wonderful!

  26. The Washington DC Metro system had a train crash with 10 fatalities in June 2009 because of the failure of an automated system that was supposed to prevent collisions. It’s 2016 and trains have not yet resumed automatic operation. If a system that runs on tracks can’t be made safe and foolproof, why does anyone believe that driverless cars can be made safe and foolproof?

  27. I agree with this 100% and would add: my older daughter is 15 years old and the thought of her driving is terrifying to me — she seems to go through life with a double-digit spot-check penalty. The thought of her remaining indefinitely dependent on my willingness to drive her around doesn’t thrill me, either. The thing about teen drivers is that everyone starts out a novice, the novices are all terrible drivers, and there is nothing that substitutes for experience. My state (like many) has imposed hefty educational requirements and graduated licensing, but this has backfired a bit in that increasing numbers of teenagers just wait until they’re 18 to even bother with getting a license. (They are not magically better drivers at 18 than they would have been at 16, and you can’t make them get 40 hours of supervised behind-the-wheel practice at 18.)

    Anyway. On the long, long list of problems that robot cars will solve: teen drivers. YAY. WIN.

  28. I would love to have a self-driving car. I spend at least 40 minutes a day driving to and from work and it would be great to be able to spend that time reading or surfing the internet. Also, it would be wonderful for even longer trips, when I would be able to do the above plus take naps, eat a meal, watch a video, etc.

  29. Geoff Hart says:
    March 22, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    You raise some good points.

    Another thing is that while society tolerates over 30K deaths per year on our highways with cars as they are, it’s highly unlikely that it would tolerate say,10 deaths in autonomous cars every year. And there would be a feast of lawyers waiting to descend upon any manufacturer of a driver-less vehicle that failed to protect its occupants.

  30. I do fear that we’re all too optimistic about self-driving cars. What Google has done to make their self-driving car work is not any extraordinarily clever software, it’s an obsessively detailed map. For instance, the Google cars only stop at traffic lights because they have a map of where all the traffic lights are, so they point a camera at one when they approach it to check whether to stop.

    They don’t stop at stop signs; they stop at locations where their map tells them there is a stop sign. Even their pothole avoidance is based on a map of where all the potholes are.

    The problem with this is that if there are temporary traffic lights put up (e.g. as a result of temporary roadworks), then the Google cars won’t stop at them until the map database is updated.

    Now maybe Google could reach an agreement with a city to update the database at the same time as they put up any temporary changes to the road system, but without that, they will need to write a general-purpose road signage reading algorithm, which is something they don’t currently have.

    That’s just one example of the many outstanding challenges. Google have a lot of smart people and a lot of computing power, so I wouldn’t put it past them, mind you. But we shouldn’t be treating it as a certainty.

    Honestly, self-driving cars would be great; they’d be like an even-cheaper and more widely-available version of Über.

  31. They are not magically better drivers at 18 than they would have been at 16, and you can’t make them get 40 hours of supervised behind-the-wheel practice at 18

    Huh? Yes you can. Same as any other licence. Most jurisdictions grant driving licences on a test-only basis (though if you make the test hard enough, most people have to study pretty hard – UK pass rate is 43%, which means most people have to take it several times; I needed five tries before I passed), but Germany requires a certain number of hours of supervised training with a qualified instructor before taking the test.

  32. I’m in favor of it.

    I like driving personally (forgot how to parallel park the day after I passed my test, not sorry about that at all, have never gotten into a serious accident) but not in Boston or other crowded cities, or when there’s traffic. So it’s absolutely worth it to me to not have to.

    I side-eye rugged individualist drivers, as I suspect they’re the assholes who honk whenever I slow down to let someone merge or to see if this is the street I need to turn on, who weave in and out of traffic without signaling, and who tailgate because going 80 MPH is somehow not fast enough for Mr. Penis Extension. If we can de facto or de jure outlaw That Guy, I support whatever technology is involved.

    I like public transportation in theory (and use it ninety percent of the time). In practice, the coverage and schedules are not great (more funding would help), neither is the reliability (likewise) and also being in your own private car does decrease the risk of Guy Who Smells Like Feet and Really Wants to Chat, College Kids Who Haven’t Learned “Indoor Voice”, and all the other people who make pubtrans a training montage of misanthropy. (Amtrak has Quiet Cars, which I think should exist and be enforced everywhere. I would also support an Odor-Free Car.)

  33. I was interested in the declaration that self-driving cars will mean the end of private car ownership. I don’t see how that’s necessarily so, and even if it is, what’s the problem? I drive a tiny car for fuel reasons – I don’t need a behemoth to transport just me – and when I do need to haul cargo, I already rent a larger car or a truck.

    And speaking of liking driving only as a tool to get somewhere, one of the least comprehensible of human activities to me is the one called “cruising” (as in American Graffiti and other 50s-60s stories). Not only are you driving without the point of getting anywhere, you create an artificial traffic jam to do it. That’s like hitting yourself over the head with a hammer for fun.

  34. I foresee about a ten-to-twenty-year gap between the time self-driving cars are allowed and the time when they’re required. Yes, there are downsides to autonomous cars, but most of them relate to their interaction with those piloted by hominins.

    All this depends on protecting the system from malicious hackers. I take it as given that improvements in sensors will ultimately make database problems largely irrelevant.

  35. As much as I’d like autonomous cars, the mention of ad hoc ride-sharing above immediately makes me worry about safety issues. Various forms of assault take place on trains and other public transit where there’s a reasonable chance of someone else, even someone official coming along; getting in a car with another random person and no chance of anyone else checking in seems like it would up the odds. There are certainly steps that could be taken, but the immediate ones that come to mind call for increased surveillance or lessened efficiency.

  36. naomikritzer: There was a study recent;y in Washington state that found that people who got their license at 18 (when you don’t have to take driver’s ed) were *substantially* worse drivers than 16-year-olds. The study didn’t speculate as to why but I would guess a combination of more restrictions on minors and a whole lot more fear. (“If I get a ding in Dad’s car he’ll ground me forever!” “I can’t do donuts in Mom’s minivan!”)

    As for me, I’d love to have a self-driving car for that “last-mile” issue. It’s too far to walk to public transit (or the connections are a mess) but there’s nowhere to park at my destination. It will be interesting to see what happens to the economics of parking garages.

  37. I like driving but find long road trips boring. I dream of train service between cities where I can drive my car onto a flatbed, sleep or read for several hours, and then drive off at my destination. Best of all worlds!

  38. I find myself on the side of po8crg, perhaps because I’ve been building software for three decades and have done some estimates of how complex a system like Google’s will need to be. Given their current strategy, the effort is well beyond a moonshot worth of effort, what’s the next order of magnitude after a moonshot? A marsshot? Hmmm, In any case, they are not near solving that problem and have recently admitted that there will be something like a gradual rollout of capabilities over the next thirty years. The current belief that real products will arrive soon strikes me as the results of this Google PR stunt than anything real.

    I think we’ll see a decade or so of automated assistance improvement, but unless someone makes some kind of breakthrough, thirty years seems about right. If ever. Somewhere in there I’d guess that some dedicated roadways will be converted or built for automated traffic, think of the densest roadways getting special lanes, or certain downtown areas. But consider that the US has 4 million miles of paved roads, it is hard to imagine converting those roads when we can barely take care of them now.

    I’d like to be proven wrong, but I’ve given up on the idea arriving before I pass on. I’m not even sure if it is a good idea when you think about the real issues we face.Really, the best bang for buck might be to focus on public transportation improvement and eliminating greenhouse gasses.

  39. I would be happy if auto manufacturers were required to set country lights (aka “high beams”) to automagically turn off a) any time the vehicle is traveling at less than 50 mph; b) any time exterior sensors detected street lights. Because people are apparently too stupid to notice that their high beams are on as they blunder down the city streets.

    I would be REALLY happy if auto manufacturers were required to program a speed control so that if an operating cellular phone were detected in the driver’s seat area of the vehicle, it couldn’t go faster than 10 mph. Because people can’t come to a complete stop in time to avoid a collision if they are texting, or chatting with their [insert random person here], or – hell, who knows? some of these people might be surgeons – telling their surgical assistant that they will be at the hospital for that transplant in ten minutes – at 25 mph.

    And I would ECSTATIC if auto manufacturers were required to install sensors that would tell the DMV when the vehicle is tailgating, passing with insufficient clearance, or running a stop sign, so that more of these idiots would get the tickets they so richly deserve.

    On topic: self-driving cars need a little more work but I think they are inevitable, because while Americans like to present as “rugged individualists” we are mostly a bunch of babies who like to have everything done for us. Americans value having time to waste more than almost anything else. (That generalization is based on observation of how people actually spend their time and money.) Once a few people get to experience it, everybody’s gonna want one.

  40. Chachai, can I add functional turn signals to your list? My husband and I think the more expensive the car, the less likely they are to work.

  41. as if they’re not already much, much better drivers than humans are

    No, they’re not. It’s really frightening to see how many people think this is true. I, also, would love to have future-tech magic automatic cars, but we’re not there yet, we’re not close to there yet, and if we want to be there, we can’t substitute eagerness for caution.

    Consider, for example, that we are not actually getting transparency and open disclosures from companies pushing autonomous cars. Google fought to avoid having to report ‘disengagement’ – situations where a human operator had to intervene. It won’t release data from prior to 2014, and admits that there were “many thousands” of incidents (not reported to the DMV) where human drivers took over. And Google’s not the only company developing autonomous cars.

    The feast of lawyers aren’t going to descend to help accident victims; we already have lawsuits when somebody dies in a car accident, and that won’t change. The important, where-the-money-is, lawyer battle royale is going to be over state laws assigning liability between car manufacturers and developers of autonomous-driving software. Car companies want to point the finger at the software setup, without which their car would have worked just fine. Driving-software developers want to point to mechanical failure. And they’ll all want to keep their proprietary software under lock and key, to prevent anyone who claims they were harmed by buggy driving programs from proving those bugs actually exist.

  42. My guess for self-controlled automotive vehicles: look to the bulk transport and logistics industry for the most likely player in taking them up – but don’t look to see something which looks like a conventional prime mover. Instead, look to see something which is, at best, a wheeled and motorised framework which bolts or clips around a standard sized cargo container, and is programmed (via something like a cellphone app) with a destination and a route to it. Expect “caravans” of cargo containers heading out of ports or industrial areas, all heading to their various destinations (and expect to be spending a lot of time waiting at traffic lights for such a convoy to go by – do you really think the industry isn’t going to lobby to get priority on the roads for their automated loads?). Why would the transport and logistics industry be the one to take it up? Because at the moment, humans are the weak link in the logistical chain. Human drivers cause the problems, human drivers cost the money in wages, damages, and late delivery fees, and human drivers do pesky things like needing rest and food on a regular basis. An automated system would be ultimately reliable, and would take a lot of uncertainty out of the whole process (and thus make things a lot more profitable in the long run). Oh, and if anyone’s wondering where the push to make the roads entirely automated would be coming from – transit and logistics industry again, because having everyone else on the road effectively forced to give way to their cargoes would mean much better travel times and much more reliable deliveries.

  43. Right, here goes. I’ll try and avoid the technical stuff and instead dwell on the “social” side of things.

    Autonomous Car Rental Autonomous Phone System: – “All our cars are busy right now. A car is scheduled for your address and should be there in 17 minutes. Your custom is valued by us”. Sound familiar from other settings?

    You are lucky and happen to live in a city with more than one autonomous car rental firm. So you call the other firm and order a car from them. Whichever arrives first you take. Guess what? Yes, in the legislation is a small clause that lets a firm charge you a default fee if you don’t take the ordered car.

    Gran wants to go to the supermarket. My apologies to Grans for this.She isn’t too strong as to the supermarket’s actual location but she can give directions. “Turn right at the next turn, or is it left? Oh dear you’ve gone straight through. Now we’re going to have to turn around” Car arrives at a competitors supermarket and announces “Ma’am, when the passenger cannot give an actual address of a supermarket we will take you to the nearest [insert chain name here] as they are currently paying us a fee each time we do”.

    To and from work is easy. But what about Gran? Does the car wait with meter running whilst she goes shopping, or does she have to request a new one to get home? In case of the second option see para 2 above.

    We’ll go with the second option for now and a new car arrives. But lo and behold there are ten people waiting outside the supermarket for their car to arrive. Whose is it? What if the wrong person tries to car-jack it – “I’ve been waiting ten minutes and I’m not waiting a moment longer so I’m taking this one”.

    How about kids waiting after school and twenty identical [brand name] cars arrive to pick up the little darlings. How do you get the right kids in the right car. What happens when Jack & Jill should be in the car but Jill has swapped with Ben so Ben can come visit with Jack whilst Jill hops in the car with Jennifer. How do the parents find out where their missing child is especially if this was a chain reaction swap involving most of the twenty cars.

    A previous commenter raised this. What do you do when the passenger before you hadn’t bothered to bathe for a week and has left a tantalizing aroma behind. And you can’t wind the windows down because they don’t because the autonomous cars run on their own roads and other cars pass by with very little space between. You might foolishly put your arm out the window and have a car coming the other way amputate it for you. [law suit! law suit! = windows stay closed]. Abandoning the car in high dudgeon results in a default charge as mentioned in para 3.

    Insurance companies and their attempts to avoid paying out. I shall leave you all to contemplate the horror scenarios here.

    Michael Shkreli has just bought out the one rental car firm in your town and has doubled the prices overnight – whatcha gonna do?

    Voice recognition – this will have to be the way the car is given directions. So imagine KiwiSteve with his kiwi accent arriving in a small Ohio town and wants to go to Mister Skullzees place. No he doesn’t know the address but it is in Ohio somewhere; its not that big a place.

  44. I love the idea of self-driving cars for the same reasons others have given. More reading/knitting/working/writing time built into my commute, without the delays and frequent standing-room-only and occasional creeps of the bus? Sign me up!

    I’m not as enamored at the idea of renting rather than owning said self-driving car. If I own the car, I can leave stuff in it — diaper bag, car seats, sunglasses, grocery bags — and if I realize an hour after I get home that I forgot to get something out, I can go out to the driveway instead of calling a lost-and-found and crossing my fingers. When I’m in a rush in the morning, the last thing I want to spend time on is wrangling a pair of car seats into place in the rental car. If I were childless, I could see using public transportation most of the time and a self-driving rental car on the rare occasions when I really needed one, but the logistics of travel with kids is why I gave up on public transit and bought a car in the first place.

  45. I’m retired and getting older and the health problems are piling up. I’m with John — I want my self-driving care NOW NOW NOW so that I can continue to visit my family in other states. (Fly? Seriously? Flying in today’s world is literally so painful that I can’t handle it, so my trips are now limited to about an 8-hour drive from where I live.)

  46. Yes, I’d love a self driving car. But I think the odds of getting one are about the same as getting a flying car, or a fusion reactor. It’s always going to be “about ten years” until they’re ready.
    Maybe autopilot while you’re on the interstate, but engineers are vastly underestimating the complexity of local driving.

  47. One thing I am looking forward to is traffic control flow. With autonomous cars connected as a swarm things should move along smoother. Long stops at traffic lights might become a thing of the past (if not traffic lights themselves). Lane keeping and inter-vehicle spacing should improve the traffic flow and help eliminate or reduce the effects of emergency stops or evasion. If smart enough, vehicles in parallel lanes could be staggered to allow for quick lane changes.

    That said, there will always be the independent thinkers who insist that they can control their vehicle better, distracted/tired/raged/impatient or not. Consider the nudnicks who still do not wear seatbelts.

    I must admit that I am not comfortable as a passenger but if the car is more than capable and better aware of conditions than I am I will surrender my pride and enjoy the ride.

  48. Socialized cars? Such idealism. That’s like thinking recycling and rationing will be equal for everyone, even the rich. (Which didn’t work out in WWII)

    I think such cars will still be privately owned because Madison Avenue will encourage us (Be the first on your block…) to personalize our cars, inside and out. Fuzzy dice, anyone?

    I remember when owners of vans would have gatherings to happily show their paintings and carpets.

  49. @ KiwiSteve

    Not that there won’t be a host of issues needing resolving, but some of the social problems you mention already have different sorts of solutions or workarounds. Some may need improvement and some may raise other problems, but most of the problems there aren’t new or specific to self-driving cars.

    Gran doesn’t know the address of the supermarket? People are already using GPS systems in cars when they don’t know the exact directions. I’ve already come across taxi drivers that use GPS (obviously not the excellent ones with deep knowledge of the city, but enough to know it’s already done), I don’t know the location of a place I’m trying to navigate to? I almost always successfully find it with Google maps, and I expect services like it to improve with demand. You can find “down the hill, to the right, and just past the bridge” pretty well on a map, even if you don’t have a clue what the street name is. Or, you could search “KwikEMart, postcode” (with or without voice recognition) and pick from options presented.

    Voice recognition isn’t up to KiwiSteve’s accent? There’s always text input or clicking a point on a map. (Though really, I’d wonder at anyone getting into a car to go anywhere with only “Mister Skulzee’s place” as directions, whether there’s a driver or not. The problem there is knowledge, not input interface.)

    Car sharing services like GoCar or ZipCar have hourly options which might work well for Gran’s shopping trip, considering that’s how they’re used by human drivers now.

    Identifying car for person who has ordered it? Car sharing services are already solving this problem. It can be anything from a membership card or physical fob that you need to open the car to a code sent to your phone. GoCar or ZipCar are already doing this. Or, if you’re willing to deal with the extra privacy ramifications (and considering that people aren’t complaining too much about Facebook’s facial recognition, well . . . ) biometric signatures like facial recognition, which could escalate a query to a decision maker if the wrong set of kids are in a car. There are plenty of possible solutions, the question is really what suits best and what the other ramifications of the solutions are.

    If the problem is customer service of an autonomous car rental company, the problem is customer service and business models, not the idea of a self-driving car. So, in that social situation, I’d expect more individual ownership of self-driving cars until the situation is sorted out either by better regulation or someone deciding that good service makes for better business and getting all the customers.

    The legal situation is bigger than insurance company payouts, though, and this is a big one that I think will keep autonomous cars off the roads until we have an answer. Who is ultimately responsible for a self-driving car involved in a collision causing deaths? Even in a case where there is no software error and no mechanical error, there’s the possibility of a situation where a concatenation of things have gone wrong and in a split second a “driver” has to make the decision between moving one way and . . . say . . . hitting a cyclist or moving the other way and hitting an elderly person in a car, and there is no “safe” option. If it’s not the human sitting in the car making the decision, who is responsible for the decision made? It’s not just the question of payouts, but liability.

    Because you really do need someone ultimately responsible for being in control of a massive object hurtling down the road, I think it’s going to be a while before we see actually driver-less vehicles. And the bigger the mass, the more this is the case. So, I don’t think the teamsters are out of a job quite yet (but hopefully they’ll have an assist and their job will change to one slightly less fatiguing).

  50. While I think there will be plenty of folks who want to keep their own cars and drive them (as noted, I love driving), there are so many people who hate driving, that there’s obviously a market for autonomous cars. Even if they go poky because they’re being extra-safe, I foresee them being incredibly popular. Factor in as well that fewer and fewer young people get driver licenses these days (in the USA at least), and the situation is prime for a slow, natural conversion to self-driving cars.

    This of course won’t stop me from being the asshole swearing at the driverless car poking along in the only lane of the road, timing poorly so we stop at every traffic light, until I finally lose my patience and zoom past them in the oncoming lane. OTOH, at least I won’t be stuck behind them dawdling along at the speed limit in the left (passing! passing, godammit!) lane of the NJ Tpke as so many human drivers do. Call it a wash.

    And as long as we’re complaining about poor human driving habits, I would like to encourage every driver in the Philadelphia area to please go to NYC and learn how to make a gorram left hand turn. Seriously. What is with this burg. NO ONE here knows how to make a left turn.

  51. @ Kore – yes!! There is no technological impediment to installing automated turn signals. Any time the steering wheel turns more than x degrees, the turn signal goes on. Simple. :-)

    (It’s not just actual turns – it’s lane changes, coming out of parking spots, etc. World full o’ stupid out there.)

    @ E – here in L.A. we need a whole lot of streets converted to “right turn only” because the number of idiots trying to make left turns, from residential side streets, onto the 7-lane thoroughfare, without a traffic signal, at rush hour, is truly mind-boggling.

  52. @Kee: The legal situation is bigger than insurance company payouts, though, and this is a big one that I think will keep autonomous cars off the roads until we have an answer. Who is ultimately responsible for a self-driving car involved in a collision causing deaths?

    This is my own hobby horse (autonomous, of course). A little while ago I had breakfast with a researcher in artificial intelligence, and we talked briefly about whether autonomous cars would ever face some version of the trolley problem. It seems obvious that such problems, if they come up, can’t be addressed by engineering alone. We don’t even find agreement among reasonable people.

    Even if we ignore hard problems in practical ethics, the average driver might think, “Wait, I have to keep paying liability insurance, even though I get no say in what my car does? Let Google pay for it–they designed the software.”

  53. @po8crg Imagine my shock when I found out that New Jersey’s “road” test for getting a license did not involve a road at all, but a closed course in a parking lot. It explains so much ….

  54. I’m with you. I like driving but I’m getting older and I realize that eventually I could become a driving hazard. So, to maintain my independence, a self driving car would be a god send that would protect me and the other motoring public. Plus I could forgo owning a car and just call up the local car rental place and have them send over a car to pick me up when I need one.

  55. As someone who doesn’t drive and who will probably never learn, I’d welcome being able to rent a self driving car at the few occasions where I need one. That is, once they become safe enough.

    However, I don’t share Mike’s vision of small, driverless cars for delivering packages because – people are people – and some will inevitably try to rob, steal or break them – to get money or just for kicks. Especially if they drive slow. They may not be able to and they may harm themselves trying, but don’t underestimate human stupidity.

  56. @Kee
    Thanks for your comments on mine.

    I had already thought through some of my problems and identified possible fixes. But some of those fixes are going to be fun – especially when lawyers get hold of “some sort of solution or workaround” and say that’s not good enough.

    You mention biometrics as an identity solution. No problem with that as a solution. Well, except for who controls the database? And keeping it up to date: – that rebellious teenager who updates their appearance each week and refuses to remove their sunglasses. Maybe we should just all be microchipped.

    On the insurance / law enforcement angle I see the requirement for all vehicles to have a black box recorder. And that will come in sooner rather than later. When roads have both driverless and driven cars both sides are going to want to prove it is the others fault.

    Now if I were to go to Ohio to visit Mr Skullzee it is going to have to be within 20 years. Do you think by then the autonomous car will be able to recognize me, decipher my accent, know I’m safe because I’m not on any terrorist watch list, and offer a list of Skullzees to choose the right one from?

  57. Really interesting comments here. I’d love an autonomous car (my preferred vision is Donald Fagan’s “Kamakiriad” where it also makes coffee!) but I’m w/the majority of commenters in that A) it will take a lot longer than we think; B) the social/legal issues will be as large as the technical issues; C) Americans will be very reluctant to give up control, while being constitutionally unable to correctly/responsibly exercise said control; D) the ‘sharing not owning’ option makes the most sense, but Americans seem to have issues with many iterations of ‘public’ transport, no matter how constituted.
    Given all that, I’d say we just need to legalize all drugs — cause that would force the development of truly efficient, reliable public transportation. Then we could work on the autonomous personal transport device: sort of like a Segway, but with a seat, an enclosing canopy, an i-device-of-your-choosing dock, and a cup holder. These would be programmed to link together, like impromptu trains when the number of pods going in a particular direction reached a certain mass, and then individuals would peel off as they reached their destinations. In my dreams they don’t even use roads, but hang from a monorail type arrangement. But I’m not an engineer, just someone who’s read waaaay to much science fiction!

  58. @KiwiSteve

    As far as your Jack, Jill, Jennifer, et al point, I expect it will go much the same as the time I walked over to my friend Richard’s house instead of riding the bus home in the second grade. Panic, frantic phone calls, and a well deserved and… memorable ass chewing. But I have to say, if you are letting your little darlings crawl alone and unattended into unidentified and unmarked robot cars, that’s on you, mate.

  59. Not sure how google plans on surviving the first person killed by their JohnnyCab. Is the plan to set aside a few million per death and assume they will make more on people who live than the ones who are killed?

    As far as the software goes, this is not a fly by wire computer implementing control law in hard/software. Thats a well definable problem. It can take years to do it, but its a contained problem, most importantly because the decision making process is outsourced to the pilot.

    Self driving car? AI? It is an open ended problem. Simple example is a car gets to a spot where a lolice officer is directing traffic, and suddenly its a structural-language version of “Shaka, when the walls fell”. I have never seen two cops direct traffic the same way.

    And there is no safe response to confusion either. Stop where you are? Sometimes its safe, but not on a traintrack or fast moving traffic.

    And then there is the consequence of driving on roads alongside human drivers. In heavy traffic, humans can be ruthless trying to save themselves ten feet. A JohnnyCab will be extra cautious and will be forced to defer to aggressive drivers, making your JohnnyCab commute time 1.5x longer than if you drove yourself.

  60. In heavy traffic, humans can be ruthless trying to save themselves ten feet.

    I feel like Terminator Mode would be a good solution to that problem.

  61. The legal situation is bigger than insurance company payouts, though, and this is a big one that I think will keep autonomous cars off the roads until we have an answer. Who is ultimately responsible for a self-driving car involved in a collision causing deaths?

    This is being discussed in the insurance industry. I’m not sure anyone has settled on an answer, but we’re a ways out from the tech being ready for prime time so that’s ok.

    I believe that a fully autonomous vehicle just isn’t around the corner. I may not live to see one (I’m 39).

    I expect more evolutionary change: cars are coming with more and more helper features. As those are proven to work, people will be comfortable with them (and regulators will require them, and insurers will give discounts for drivers who buy cars with them). Google and others will keep working on the fully autonomous car, but they face high hurdles.

    I could see highway driving going full auto first. I think in order for autonomous cars to work well, the road itself has to been sensored-up and communicating with the cars. I could see doing that bit by bit on particularly heavily trafficked roads like, say, I-95. City streets are another possibility, but there you’re also dealing with pedestrians (and cyclists) and boy that has to make it way harder. The advantage of highways is that they have restricted access.

    Roads out in east bumblefuck (like where I live), meanwhile, will probably not be workable for autonomous cars until those cars are run by actual honest to goodness AI.

  62. I totally see all the benefits to automated cars, but it would be problematic for me to use one. Due to inner-ear damage, I tend to get motion sick as a passenger because my body can’t find equilibrium if it can’t anticipate the movement and compensate for whatever vehicle I’m in. So I’m pretty much stuck driving myself most of the time (I have no idea what I’ll do when I’m no longer able to drive myself places). That being said, I would love to see more driver-assisting safety features like auto-braking become standard.

  63. Cars have been around for over a century now and still they are not fool-proof. All types of manufacturers and software developers work to make their product fool-proof.

    The only problem is that no-one has yet made their product idiot-proof. And not all the idiots are on the using side. Lets not forget those highly paid executives who go for the cheaper option (= higher bonus) and end up spending much more on product recalls.

    Nothing will ever stop idiots.

  64. I have mixed feelings. I do indeed enjoy recreational driving. But for day-to-day getting myself to work/store/whatever, I’d be more than happy with a bot at the wheel.

    There’s a big difference between anticipating the swoops and turns of a curvy mountain road with the wind in my hair, and chugging along a crowded freeway surrounded by George Carlin’s “idiots and maniacs”, with the smog in my hair. The former is great fun; the latter, not so much.

    I hope recreational driving doesn’t go away for a long time, but since the vast majority of my driving is non-recreational, I won’t actually weep if it goes away sooner than I anticipate.

  65. @KiwiSteve
    Yeah, I agree that biometrics as identification would raise a whole host of serious issues, some of which we’ve already sleepwalked into in other areas and are not handling well at all . . . if mostly because people don’t even realize what’s happening and what the implications are.

    On visiting Mr Skulzee within the next 20 years . . . I kind of hope all of that will NOT be possible. I certainly don’t want an autonomous car with that much connected information. The ability to recognize an authorized passenger (or preferably a token belonging to an authorized passenger), and the ability to navigate safely to a chosen location (white pages + map and human authorization of chosen location) should be sufficient and a big enough ask. The car shouldn’t choose the human’s end destination.

    Yes. Really, drivers face smaller, split-second versions of the Trolley Problem often enough. Although the gap between the thought problem and reality, is that in reality, you don’t have the time to make a reasoned, logical decision. You swerve, don’t swerve, brake, or hit the gas in an instant and then have leisure to “should-have-done” later if you survive the situation.

    @Rob in CT
    I’m not at all surprised that they’re discussing this in the insurance industry already.
    I like the idea of helper features, and I expect you’re right that we’ll see more of an evolution. And possibly, even when there are enough helper features to make the car effectively self-driving, the requirement of a person in the driver’s seat keeping aware and officially being the one making the decision to take over in the event something goes seriously wrong. Which . . . at a selfish level, would mean I couldn’t read my book in the car anyway, so I’d keep taking the bus or train when I could.

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