I don't have a driver's license. I have no plans to get one. I'm constantly (constantly) nagged about when I'll cave and just take the lessons because, allegedly, one day I'll need it. But if I hold out another decade, I just might not. Car makers intend to take out the weak point: the driver.
A staple of the science fiction metropolis is the driverless car: autonomous taxis or family cars without a steering wheel are a 22nd century signum, but driverless cars have already come a long way in design, technology and implementation. Car makers such as Volvo, Toyota and General Motors are working hard to improve traffic flow, safety and fuel efficiency by designing away the cause of most problems: human drivers.
Better than you’d guess
General Motors promises I will win the no-driver’s license argument within the decade. Efforts for driverless cars are turning out well: from the self-parking Lexus to the Google car (200,000 kilometers, including Lombard Street in San Francisco, with only one minor accident). Driverless cars are perceived as making slow mistakes in an open parking lot, but consider the winners of the Vislab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge.
When four vans rolled into the Shanghai Expo in 2010, they’d barreled across the most remote parts of Kazakhstan and Russia, across vast expanses where no maps are available, where the research team had no possibility to plan the route beforehand. But surely, crashing across the empty Russian wastelands isn’t a realistic challenge? No, but these (electric) cars had driven themselves from Parma, Italy, out through Eastern Europe, to Shanghai in three months – a journey of 15,000 kilometers, with unharmed cargo. The implication of driverless cars is enormous: autonomous, green, intercontinental cargo convoys.
There are sound reasons to disbelieve the driverless cars: the technical challenges are obvious, but legal and social issues are non-trivial too:
- algorithmic drivers aren’t creative enough to deal with critical risk scenarios they haven’t seen before.
- your trashy PC can’t even keep track of your email, much less negotiate a four-way intersection – no one will bet their life against software bugs.
- when an accident happens; is the passenger, hardware manufacturer or software analyst legally responsible?
- no-one will accept sharing the road with an unpredictable computer driver, unless we replace all cars simultaneously.
So, driverless cars can’t handle an unknown scenario? Neither can you. An adrenaline-jammed spinal cord won’t prioritize well between getting rammed by an oncoming truck and side-swiping a bicyclist, and the brain won’t figure out a safe trajectory through. Automatic drivers do both, and coordinate responses: your car and the truck can agree on where to go. If the truck is in the wrong lane, it can announce intent to cross over completely into the ditch on your side. With that information, your car can use the truck’s lane for slowing down safely. In the split second a human driver had thrown up his arms and screamed, driverless vehicles can perform an how-do-you-do negotiation, agree on exit paths, politely discuss the weather and road conditions and part as friends (possibly into a tree if nothing better can be found).
What about buggy software? The above scenario assumes that no programming error makes the driverless car panic and veer to avoid a semi truck that isn’t even there. Bugs crop up, and in a car at full speed, rebooting isn’t an option. What’s to say a bug won’t bit-flip, turn left and chicken-race the truck? Nothing, apart from rigorous testing and quality control. Meanwhile, human drivers self-administer death by oncoming truck every day. Unexpected scenarios are likely human errors anyway:
…conceived unpredictable incidents […] such as an elk on the road. The interviewees managed critical incidents by common sense but this concept was also used when they excused their mistakes.
(The Conceptions of Traffic Safety among Young Male Drivers, R. Lehtimäki)
And sure, the Google car has been in an accident. It was hit from behind at a red light. By a human.
But, when an accident does happen, who is responsible? A driverless car fails to stop at a red light and runs someone over. Who does the time? The question is a subset of the general problem of defining responsibility around robotics (slides here). Peter Asaro concludes that “other difficult practical and meta-ethical problems cannot be solved by legal theory alone”. Legal code has to be adjusted to emerging technologies (for instance, here are six new “insane” laws we’ll need in the future). It is a difficult topic, but analogous to legal responsibility for the mentally challenged or psychotic.
The Low-hanging Fruit
Of course, there is the simple way: human error causes almost every accident. With a driverless car, 90% of the risk goes away, so from a game theoretical perspective there is good utility in choosing the automatic driver,along with full responsibility for its actions – you’d serve an average of 90% fewer years behind bars for vehicular manslaughter.
Distrust for machines lies within us: driving into a four-way intersection knowing that you’re the only conscious driver around might not inspire trust. The early adopter might not be appreciated: waiting in line all night for an iPhone 5 will upset very few, but speeding two tons of metal down the road past school grounds while reading in the back?
Charles Stross suggests an interesting roadmap: the adoption vector for autonomous cars is rising insurance premiums. Those who insist on driving manually are betting against the tenfold risk, and that might become an expensive hobby.
Let’s get one bit of statistics in place: cars themselves aren’t very dangerous. Writing on the “epidemiology of motor vehicle collisions” (lovely wording!), the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 1.2 megadeaths per year attributed to traffic, with some fifty million injuries on top. Of those, ninety percent of all accidents are attributable to driver error – emotion, speeding, inattention and intoxication. That’s a cool, round million deaths a year, attributable to human drivers. Stross, again, puts this into perspective:
If you compare the total casualty rates, then we have one and a half times as many people injured in road traffic accidents every year than were wounded or killed during the entire first world war.
The Romantic Car
This is social: why deprive accident-free drivers of the joy of driving, just because some drivers aren’t behaving in traffic? This is a display of Stockholm syndrome at best. But we love the romantic idea of the open road, sweeping down an empty highway at dusk rocking Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing, the next town unknown and the end of the road a mystery. Who can take out the explorer in all of us and replace it with a glorified laptop?
Yeah, about that romantic idea of the open road… Family cars are typically parked for more than 90% of their lifespan. Many of them never gets to see the open, rural road, because they’re stuck in traffic. Most of them spend their car-lives in an urban environment.
Planning urban areas to accommodate heavy traffic without congestion is hard. Traffic planning has even fueled the development of mathematical fields such as game theory, queue theory and graph theory. Even with copious amounts of planning and calculation, traffic is unpredictable and its behavior is like that of viscous fluids and shockwaves.
The Car-friendly City
Since rebuilding the city from scratch is seldom an option, there have been suggestions for less dramatic furnishings. In the 1930s, Harvey Wiley Corbett envisioned a New York where rail, car and pedestrian traffic had been separated into three levels:
Since we have already put much of our rail traffic underground in our large cities, let us elevate the sidewalk to the existing second story level and leave the street level wholly to wheel traffic.
Los Angeles is widely held as a city built for an automotive society, but is really just filling out the space between the 30-minute car trips a family can tolerate. Corbett called the results of these effects old-fashioned – in 1931:
Our present sidewalk system is archaic. It originated in a day when none could have foretold the throngs which now stop at street intersections to wait the passing of automobiles or dodge their way through and between them.
The concepts and building blocks used to envision our greatest cities did not have heavy traffic in mind – Roman sidewalks and road-crossings were originally intended for getting across a muddy ditch, not to negotiate thousands of cars milling by.
Even movies contrast utopian futuristic cities and contemporary cities by traffic: vertically oriented housing, sharp suburban falloff and automated, on-demand, railbound or elevated road systems. If a city doesn’t suffer from traffic congestion, if the risk of being killed crossing the street is zero and if traffic swoops by on gently curving ribbons overhead, then the city must be a metropolis designed from the ground up for modern automotive traffic – a future utopia.
And sure enough, we’re already partly in the future. Here’s a sweet trio of Youtube clips that nicely frame the computer-driven cars available today, human drivers, and what the bleeding edge looks like.
1) Lexus has implemented assisted parking in their LS460 model. The driver designates a box to park in, and the car automatically eases its way into the parking space. It’s a bit crude and looks a bit slow and careful, but it’s good hint of what’s coming. This tech is in the streets, co-existing with other cars and deemed safe and secure. That’s one big hurdle.
2) So, German powerhouse Audi decides to poke a bit of fun at the Lexus. In a commercial short, an Audi driver powerslides into a narrow parking spot and declares that the Audi is a “luxury car for people who can park themselves”.
3) Personally, I find this quip a bit on unfair side: of course an expert stunt driver can pull that of in a controlled environment — it’s just not good sport to pit a human stunt driver against an autonomous vehicle trying its best.
It’s not fair to the driver. I, for one, welcome our new driverless overlords.