Archives For Self-Driving Cars

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A reader writes:

Just a quick response to the question:  My mother is 88 years old.  She’s in great shape for 88, very self-sufficient.  But she’s not really physically fit to drive and thankfully gave up her car keys willingly about 8 years ago.  Many “seasoned citizens” are decidedly NOT willing to give up their keys, and it’s a terrible battle within families when it’s time for Grampa to give up driving for good.

My mom feels very stranded and many times wishes she could still drive.  She loves the idea of a self-driving car, it would give her back some of the freedom she gave up when she stopped driving.  She’s doubts she’ll live to see the day when self-driving cars are a reality, but I can see how it can really improve the lives of elderly folks, as well as the handicapped.

Another agrees – and expands the argument:

Autonomous cars will be a boon for aging populations.

Many old people rely on their cars but should not be driving. Simply taking them off the road does not help them go to the hospital, store, to socialize and live active lives. But a chauffeur-less car would allow them to do these things without driving.

If there’s an argument that old people should be driven automatically, there’s an argument that all people should be. There’d be far fewer accidents, no traffic, no parking meters, no parking garages, no drunk driving, no insurance issues, no traffic stops, and no DMV. And you could text and talk to your heart’s content, with even a beer if you like, or work on your computer on the way to the office – all the negatives associated with car culture would be abated. You would not need to own a car; you could subscribe to a car service. “Your car” would always be within five minutes of you, among a vast fleet.

Aside from ferrying people around, the most impact from driverless vehicles would be on trucking. “Trucks” would be like those strange little boxy robots in the early Star Wars movies, zipping along on their individual missions. They would completely revolutionize how things are transported and delivered, from the macro to the micro, in driverless trucks of all sizes, down to the pedestrian level. A pharmacy might dispatch your medicines from a secure mini-truck in your area. Order online, get your pills in a few minutes. Or takeout, Amazon goodies – all “things” would be in motion. Not to mention the impact of drone delivery systems. A totally different world, to be sure.

I just wonder if there’s a tradeoff of freedoms. Would you get into your driverless car, and find yourself locked in and being taken to the IRS, FBI, NSA or police for some infraction that’s on your record? Driverless paddy wagons?

Kaid Benfield and Lee Epstein aren’t convinced that intelligent vehicles and automated highways are a good thing:

While it may be conceivable for bright engineers, planners and designers to come up with ways to fit such systems carefully and properly into people-first, walkable urban environments, at a minimum that fitting needs to be done as the systems are conceived and tested rather than as an errant afterthought.  Likewise for the possibility that these systems will exacerbate sprawl:  there are policy approaches that can moderate the spread and extension of highways, and/or to keep sprawling growth to a minimum – but, again, the track record is not inspiring.  These policies need to be considered, developed and adequately applied concurrently with the application of the new technologies, before the damage is inevitable. …

[J]ust because it’s high tech doesn’t make it better.

Indeed, there are lots of “old fashioned” things we need to get right about our cities, urban regions, and transportation systems before we play with expensive new technology that still doesn’t solve those basic problems: we would place a higher priority on ensuring that cities are safe, hospitable to all, walkable, a pleasure to be in, and green (both naturally, and existentially); on urban/suburban regions that have defined limits, conserving important resource lands around them; and on transportation systems that help us get efficiently from point A to point B, but which take fully into account the first two problems as effectively as they solve the last.

Lloyd Alter thinks they ignore the “larger, longer term implications” of self-driving vehicles:

Last year the Institute Without Boundaries put a lot of smart people in a room  to think about the issue. They concluded that the autonomous car is going to evolve into a very different vehicle. … Henry Ford is purported to have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The autonomous car is at that “faster horse” stage, where we think of it as being pretty much what we have now, driven by robots. I suspect it is going to be as different a mode of transportation from what we are driving now as the car is from the horse.

The autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. Urban planners and theorists have to start thinking about this or we will screw it up again.

Self-Driving Sticker Shock

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 11 2013 @ 8:08pm

Drive-thrus may take awhile to adjust to self-driving cars:


Owen Thomas argues that a "a true self-driving car is far from hitting the market" because "the massive array of sensors Google has to install in its cars alone costs $250,000 or more." Timothy Lee disagrees:

Obviously, most people can’t afford the monthly payments to buy a $300,000 self-driving car outright. But lots of people could afford to buy 10 or 20 percent of a $300,000 vehicle’s time. And most people don’t use their cars more than 10 or 20 percent of the time. So many modestly affluent consumers will find it practical to sell the BMW and just take a self-driving taxi everywhere they go.

Bill Howard describes how Audi and Toyota are taking a more incremental approach:

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When A Robot Rear-Ends You

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 27 2012 @ 7:31am

Who is liable when a self-driving car gets in an accident? Russell Brandom navigates the tricky legal situation:

Many of Google's planned features may simply never be legal. One difficult feature is the "come pick me up" button that Larry Page has pushed as a solution to parking congestion. Instead of wasting energy and space on urban parking lots, why not have cars drop us off and then drive themselves to park somewhere more remote, like an automated valet?

It's a genuinely good idea, and one Google seems passionate about, but it's extremely difficult to square with most vehicle codes. The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers "shall at all times be able to control their vehicles," and provisions against reckless driving usually require "the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle." Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there's no one in the car.

As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they're right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

A Computer With A Conscience

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 29 2012 @ 10:12am

Nick Carr's hypothetical:

So you’re happily tweeting away as your Google self-driving car crosses a bridge, its speed precisely synced to the 50 m.p.h. limit. A group of frisky schoolchildren is also heading across the bridge, on the pedestrian walkway. Suddenly, there’s a tussle, and three of the kids are pushed into the road, right in your vehicle’s path. Your self-driving car has a fraction of a second to make a choice: Either it swerves off the bridge, possibly killing you, or it runs over the children. What does the Google algorithm tell it to do?

He concludes that we "don’t even really know what a conscience is, but somebody’s going to have to program one nonetheless." Earlier Dish on machine morality here.

(Hat tip: Jacobs)

A World Without Drivers

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 25 2012 @ 10:28am

Adrian Wooldridge imagines the consequences of driverless cars:

When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopaedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too. When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise. When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce. The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived. And so on.

(Hat tip: Reihan)

The Cars Of The Future, Today

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 6 2012 @ 2:41pm

It looks like self-driving cars are coming to California. The Economist assesses the technology:

Getting a car to drive along an open road without crashing into other vehicles is one thing. Getting it to handle a complete journey on its own—including navigating junctions and roundabouts, responding appropriately at pedestrian crossings and avoiding obstacles on the road—is rather more difficult. To build such a machine costs around $1m for the car, kit, software, and brainpower, says Jonathan Sprinkle, co-leader of an American-Australian team that entered a driverless vehicle in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, a robotic-car contest sponsored by the research arm of the American Department of Defence. Because modern engines, drivetrains, and brakes already receive their instructions via electronic signals, there is surprisingly little need for additional mechanical parts.

What is needed, however, is an array of extra sensors to make cars more aware of their surroundings. Mapping nearby features, spotting road edges and lane markings, reading signs and traffic lights and identifying pedestrians is done using a combination of cameras, radar and lidar (which works like radar, but with pulses of light rather than radio waves).