Saturday, July 05, 2014

[Cars] Robot You Can Drive My Car

I continue to be confounded by the opinions regarding driverless cars you find around the web. Even at the WSJ we get a passage like:
To revel in the future that the visionaries hold out, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable. In their lush vision, America's parking lots and driveways could return to nature as a relative handful of always-handy robot cars would supplant the mostly idle cars owned in the millions by Americans today. [That is not the “vision" of people creating driverless cars. That is the vision of someone who wants to create snark.]

In practice, though, all cars would likely have to be driverless—or at least capable of taking control away from a driver in heavy traffic situations—for any cars to be driverless. Otherwise, effectively one jerk in a '74 Buick would own the only right of way. [Why? Are we suddenly going to suspend all traffic laws and let human guided vehicles do what they want with impunity? In what way would the jerk in the ‘74 Buick own the road any more than he does now?]

Doing so, though, would require not only expensive onboard systems in every car but wireless networking that would likely raise privacy and personal autonomy fears far more alarming to many Americans than whether NSA computers are scanning their mostly boring emails and text messages. Imagine a National Rifle Association for car owners. [A. Not everyone. This will be no problem for lot s folks who already love the little dongles they get from their insurance companies for lower rates. B. Yes there will need to be regulatory and legal guidelines, and stuff will get sorted via the messy, inefficient process of politics. The horror. C. Expensive becomes cheap over time. “High Def TV? Never happen - it would require everyone to buy an expensive flat screen television."]
In exactly what way are these problems insurmountable?

We get a more thoughtful observation from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias:
Auto autos, i.e., self-driving cars, seem similar: while there could be modest immediate gains from reducing accident rates and lost productive time commuting, the biggest gains should come from reorganizing our cities to match them. Self-driving cars could drive fast close together to increase road throughput, and be shared to eliminate the need for parking. This should allow for larger higher density cities. For example, four times bigger cities could plausibly be twenty-five percent more productive.
But to achieve most of these gains, we must make new buildings with matching heights and locations. And this requires that self-driving cars make their appearance before we stop making so many new buildings.Overall, his observation is that the most beneficial place to target driverless cars are fast growing cities where the changes needed to support them most efficiently. In the end he comes to the same pessimistic conclusion as the WSJ editorial: essentially, that we may not be up to the task, socio-politically. I think that's true if you're looking for a near term revolution. But the process will be evolutionary -- from fish, with cruise control and blind spot warning systems and automatic obstacle avoidance, to amphibians with driverless cars is a multi-decade step. Also, while I agree the productivity benefits would be modest until we thoroughly adapt, I don't think productivity is what will power this. Productivity gains pale in comparison to the need to signal your good-hearted concern for the safety of your fellow citizens. I expect the reduction in accident rates would be quite sizable in any city. For example, let's say we replaced 50% of all meat-pilot vehicles with robot cars. That removes one half of all the potential idiot moves on the road. I can't imagine that the reduction in accidents would be only modest. I think it would be enough to make legislators and city planners quite righteous in encouraging driverless cars.

I still believe a tipping point will come, although probably not in my lifetime, and driving will become a niche activity and eventually fade away. As we have witnessed when a tipping point occurs, whether years away or decades away, the change can ripple through society stunningly fast. As I said previously:
Our descendants will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.