The Most Overhyped Story Of 2015: Driverless CarsOther blogs worth reading
The hype surrounding driverless cars is flowing like lava out of a volcano these days. Every existing automaker is working on it, plus Google, Apple and Uber.
What people mean by "driverless car" or "self-driving car" seems to be a car that can drive without a human being needing to take over on a split second's notice, if the car suddenly doesn't know what to do, or makes a mistake. This car would be able to take you from anywhere to anywhere that a human can drive today.
If this is what people are hoping will happen relatively soon, say within a decade from now, they are likely sorely mistaken.
Let me explain.
It is important to understand that there is a world of difference between a truly driverless car, and one in which there is a driver behind the wheel ready to take over. In one scenario, you are at the mercy of a computer negotiating with the elements. In the other, you have a chance at doing something when a new kind of obstacle appears.
There are numerous scenarios that can illustrate why a driverless car is going to remain pure fantasy for a long period of time:
Scenario number one: Police hand-directing traffic
There's been an accident, blocking the road. A cop has arrived at the scene and is now directing traffic to cross the do-not-pass lines and make an illegal U-turn onto the shoulder against what would normally be oncoming traffic. What does the driverless car do?
Scenario number two: Truck stopped in front of you
You're on a one-lane road (one lane in each direction) and you're not allowed to pass. There's a truck standing still ahead of you. Perhaps someone's got a mechanical issue. Perhaps it's a garbage truck that's stuck. Perhaps it's a poorly thought-out delivery van. In either case, you have to get around it, against the law. What does the driverless car do?
Scenario number three: Snowstorm
You're on your way to the ski resort. Snowstorm happens. Visibility is very low, and you sure can't see any lane markings, let alone the car (or is that a truck?) in front of you. What does the driverless car do?
Scenario number four: Farm animals
You're at your farm and on your country road you're surrounded by swarms of cows or sheep. They're not moving. What does the driverless car do? [Answer: You just go; they will "blink" first]
Scenario number five: Broken sensor
One or more of the cameras, radars, LIDARs or other sonar systems are down. Maybe someone put a piece of tape over one of the cameras just to mess with you. Maybe a sensor is blocked by ice, mud or other dirt. What does the driverless car do?
Scenario number six: Parking
You arrive at an event. An attendant is directing traffic to go over a ditch to park on a field that's serving as a temporary space for the five thousand people showing up. It's a farm field. What does your driverless pickup truck do?
I could go on and on. In scenario after scenario, the driverless car will be extremely challenged at best, whereas a human being would figure out where, how and why to take a path that doesn't hold up traffic or makes you sit still forever. Driverless cars are typically residing in the imagination world of those who live in California coastline weather, and certainly don't do any off-road driving.
It would make things easier if you dedicated specific areas for driverless cars, where other "regular" vehicles would not be allowed to operate. If you could somehow imagine away the need for delivery trucks and some other things, perhaps you could block off Manhattan to be for these driverless cars only. That might work - at least 99.9% of the time.
Once you stipulate that a human being must be sitting behind the steering wheel ready to take over, however, you have crossed a major line. For starters, what's the point? If I can't type emails, read articles, watch a TV show or whatever, what's the point of a self-driving car anyways?
It may even be a huge safety issue, to have people sit behind the wheel and be prepared to take over if the computer isn't able or makes a mistake. There are at least two reasons for this:
You have to keep up the concentration, being as vigilant about the car's surroundings as if you were driving it today. Otherwise, how would you know what's approaching in which lane and from what direction? The temptation to slack in this regard will surely prove to be impossible for us mere mortals. If you can't help texting TODAY, then how are you going to resist the temptation when you can get away with more?
No practice, no skill. If the car is supposed to drive 99% or 99.999% of the time, how would the average person even be able to take over the wheel? Driving is a skill that is not insignificant, and you need to keep it up. Practice makes perfect. What you save when the computer works, you might lose one hundred fold when the robot fails.
One of the most oft-cited arguments in favor of driverless cars is that it will save lives. I think it could do just the opposite.
I'm not even talking about the car's computer simply making a mistake and driving you over the 800-foot ravine to certain death. That will of course happen too. I'm talking about something far worse.
The 33,000 annual traffic deaths in the US may seem like a large number, and certainly it would be better to reduce these fatalities. From seat belts to crumple zones, we have made great progress here and will continue to do so.
However, there are far greater dangers that driverless cars could represent to human health. All of these driverless cars will be susceptible to computer hacking of various types. One is from terrorists and sitting-in-mom's-basement hackers. They would be bad enough, sending either a few people or a few million people to their certain deaths.
Another danger is genocide. Can you imagine if Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao had the powers to subpoena or otherwise take control of a population where everyone were being driven around in cars without human control? They would send their political opponents to certain death in a nanosecond. You think 33,000 people dying in US traffic is bad? How about 33 million?!
How vulnerable would we be in the case of an invasion? You might go re-watch "Red Dawn" when Americans drove their pickup trucks into the mountains to mount a defense against the invading army. What if those pickup trucks were connected to the cloud, and the enemy took control of the servers? We would have no defense against pure annihilation. Then these driverless cars will be a tool to help exterminate 320 million Americans.
In that comparison, 33,000 million annual traffic accidents would seem like a beautiful sunny day at the beach.
And if your imagination doesn't stretch to the US being invaded by a foreign power, imagine Russia's fight against Ukraine. Can you imagine the damage Russia could do against Ukraine if Ukraine was dependent on driverless cars? It would be over within seconds. The best they could hope for, is for all the cars to just stop, allowing them to live for perhaps another few hours or days before losing.
Therefore, any time I read that we will save 33,000 lives in the US every year because traffic accidents will somehow cease, I think: You really haven't thought about the bigger picture, have you?
Long before such a catastrophic scenario happens, we are likely to experience far smaller sobering events. The feeling of helplessness if a driverless car just "goes crazy" and ends up in an accident will be very powerful in people's psyche, in terms of the willingness to get into one of those. You can say "Oh, but statistically you'll be safer than riding with Uncle Tony…" all you want, but good luck on making that work for most people.
So does this mean there will be no "progress" in terms of assisted driving technology?
Of course not! The path for the next 3-5 years is pretty much all set. Cars will be able to *mostly* drive themselves - on most roads (city and highway) most of the time in most situations. There is little doubt about getting to 99.9% or some number like that.
As I described in the handful of examples above, however, humans will have to take over, in order to always take the car where you want it to go. Going camping in your Jeep, driving through the forest? Snow storm? Accident ahead? Car just standing still blocking the road and no legal way around it? A cop manually directing traffic against all normal rules? Parking away from a marked road? You have to have the skill to take over.