Self-Driving Cars

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About a year ago, Tesla was under fire because one of their auto-pilots had an accident.

Obviously, barely anyone bothered to read the details, and I have heard many people use this as an example of how self-driving cars are dangerous. From my experience, most people had no idea that this was not a self-driving car (or even what the difference between an auto-pilot and a self-driving car is).

Many news outlets are probably to blame, since reporting about “First human death caused by a self-driving car” is a headline that will generate many times as many clicks as “Customer was not paying attention to the road and got into an accident”. But the second one is a lot more accurate, considering that Tesla’s autopilot system is basically just a safer cruise-control system. It can brake by itself or slightly turn the wheel to avoid accidents, and keep a stable speed like a cruise control. Every user is warned that it is not a self-driving car, and should pay attention to the road at all times to take back control if necessary. It’s basically just a safety net. If the user isn’t attentive enough, there is a chance that the autopilot could save his life.

Recently, a newer Tesla Autopilot version has also reached the news, for the exact opposite reason. As always, impressive feats do not go as far in the media as people dying, since blame generates more clicks than praise (When was the last time the media reported on a specific airline because they treated a “randomly chosen” customer very well when they had to get him out of the plane?). The Autopilot detected a likely collision between the two cars in front of it, and stepped on the brakes, almost two seconds before the accident happened. That’s pretty impressive.

But either way, those aren’t self-driving cars. They are autopilots, just like what you can find in most commercial planes, even though they certainly need a human pilot.

A self-driving car would ultimately not need a driver. That seems like a given, but it’s not that obvious to many people. What is even less obvious is that a self driving car would not even need an owner.

Obviously, we will have to go through years of self driving cars being both owned and driven by real people, because the general population will never trust them, no matter what the stats say, and will force the companies to add a mandatory “you can take control if needed” feature in every single car, and government to make laws that force the car to always have someone with a license in the driver seat. Then, for those years, the vast majority of self-driving car accidents will happen when the human takes control, and fails at controlling it correctly. That is literally what has been happening with Google’s cars for a few years now. Ridiculously safe, almost all the accidents are caused by the other car or happen while the driver activated manual control for some reason.

You probably don’t know about that, but Google are already manufacturing no-driver self-driving cars, that literally do not contain a steering wheel or pedals. But I suspect they will be outlawed as soon as a sufficient number of luddit drivers falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect get together and push for some legislation. Then it will be hell to remove that legislation.

Many people I know usually reason something like this:

I don’t want to put my life in the hands of a computer.

To which I usually answer that the computer has proven to be safer than your own hands, numerous times, and becomes exponentially safer when more people use it.

Then they often say something like this:

But I wouldn’t want a car that does full stops all the time, never goes a mile above the speed limit, and never crosses on the yellow light. I’d lose so much time!

Again, the idea that the laws apply to them too seems alien, but either way, even when I mention that outlawing of heavily legislating driver-operated vehicles would allow the speed limits to get bumped up a lot higher than they are now, and probably way higher than what the relative likes to drive at, should make them save time, not lose any, and as soon as there no driver-operated vehicles on the road, we literally won’t need stop signs and yellow lights (or any lights at all, for that matter). Then the conversation usually derives as to how long that would take, completely oblivious to the fact that it would only take long because of the people who don’t want it.

Then, there is the part about resources. As it is right now, most cars in the country are probably inactive 20-23 hours every single day. Of course, considering the fact that car usage is not evenly distributed at all during the day, we can’t say that having 24 times fewer cars would be enough. But I would guess having 3-4 times fewer of them could certainly do the trick. If people shared.

Car sharing is pretty inconvenient. If I work 7-3, and my neighbor is working 9-5, obviously we never use our cars at the same time, so we could share it. But once I reach my job, the car is stuck there. I can’t send it back to him. Self-driving cars could come back, to transport another person right after. Of course it wouldn’t be 5 specific people sharing one car. If it was, those people wouldn’t be able to go shopping at the same time on week ends. But if you have an entire city, paying for a subscription to self-driving cars to one of the providers around, it could definitely save a ton of cars and time. Furthermore, estate could be reworked, since many people would no longer need lots of parking space on their property.

I imagine a system like Uber. You could, at any time, “ask” for a car using your computer or phone, and it would be at your doorstep within minutes, or you could schedule in advance a specific schedule, to avoid asking for it every morning at the same time for commute. It would be a sort of like cellphone plans. You could pay by the miles travelled, with maybe an extra for very long distances like across states, or buy a plan giving you a discounted price for 5000 miles during the month, for example. I guess there would also be different prices if you only want to travel in expensive cars (that might sound dumb, but arguably buying an expensive car just for the looks is also pretty dumb yet many people do it).

Furthermore, as a concerned citizen that wants our planet to stay healthy, global warming is important to me. But as a selfish person who looks out for himself, global warming usually takes second place to other priorities. For example, I will not buy an electric car. I would much rather spend 5 minutes at the gas station to refuel, than spend hours to recharge, especially on long trips. That’s inconvenient, and I’m not selfless enough to take one for the team in that situation. I believe in global warming and care about the environment, I just happen to care more about things being convenient to me. I agree this is probably being a dick. But I would argue that most people who care about the environment do the same, I’m just being honest about it. When was the last time you saw an environment-friendly politician take the bus to an important meeting or conference?

With self-driving cars in this Uber-like utopia, we could have all of them being electric cars. Since you are not confined to a specific vehicle,  charging time would not affect you at all. You’d always be travelling in a charged vehicle, and the others would be charging at a convenient location, out of your sight. For long trips, you could just switch car every few hours for a fully charged one, and it wouldn’t take you more time than refueling a polluting vehicle.

So, if we simply accept them and the fact that they are safer than us, we could get:

  • Significantly less pollution
  • Significantly improved road safety
  • Reduced prices
  • Increased space around our house
  • Reduced commute time
  • Reduced parking costs (The car just goes away by itself! No more parking meters!)
  • No more danger from drunk drivers or passed out drivers
  • Optimized traffic on intersections, very few “slowing down” zones
  • Easier carpooling if you want to.

And to get all this, we just have to do two things

  • Convince the general population somehow that they suck and computers would really be better
  • Outlaw driver-operated vehicles.

This also sort of ties into the debate for gun control. I often argue, when I know that my opponent is pro gun control, that cars are responsible for many more deaths, whether it be murder or accidents, than guns, in the country. In fact, the only possible excuse that guns have, which is the ability to keep an attacker in check by threatening him, and literally shooting him down for protection, are completely invalid when talking about cars. You can’t threaten someone with a car (well, it might be possible but no one does it), and you can’t “shoot back” with a car.

The only reason why almost no one is advocating “car control”, the same way they advocate gun control, is that cars happen to have a convenient use for the general public. Since self-driving cars are starting to show up, and are already so much better than the alternative, there is literally no reason for this “convenient use” to keep being obtained through driver-operated cars.

I will gladly advocate for gun control. As soon as cars are successfully banned. They are the bigger evil, and gun violence, even though it is obviously a problem, is insignificant compared to car “accidents”. Let’s focus on the bigger problem first.

 

I will end this post by telling you about a funny situation I encountered the other day. There was a reddit post about Self-driving cars, that mentioned how the project lead has once declared “I hope that my children never need to get a driving license”. His oldest kid is ten years old. That obviously means that he hopes normal cars are obsolete within the next 6 years.

But then, there was a guy in the comment that said this: “This is so dumb. Even if self-driving cars are the norm, my kids will all get their driving license, just in case. You can’t always rely on modern technology.”

I laughed at the cognitive dissonance. Of course, if that guy learned many different horse-riding techniques before getting his driver’s license, just in case he someday has to travel several hundred kilometers on horseback, or commute to work using a horse for a week, then he isn’t in cognitive dissonance, just very weird. But if he hasn’t then, he doesn’t realise how ironic he is that he is literally advocating for learning to use obsolete technology (car) in case the modern one fails, when he has never learned to use obsolete technology (saddles and horses) back in his days in case the modern one (cars) failed.

Remember kids. The scary modern technology that is coming will someday be the “reliable and better old-school alternative” of your children.

  • Kingfisher

    I think there’s a number of factors going on, but there’s one that stands out; Driving is an addictive feeling of power for a lot of people. If you tell a person that you can cut their commute time in half, save them money, and make them safer and healthier, they’ll quickly turn you down if it means they have to give up the buzz they get from being in control of a machine that gives them superpowers. They will rationalize this in a number of ways, but I suspect this is the real reason.

    The second obstacle is the transition period. Right now there are a lot of accidents caused solely by human error. At full implementation there will be a tiny number of freak accidents caused by machine malfunction (about the same that are solely the result of machine malfunction as there is now I’d guess). In the transition period, there will be some (not many, but some) accidents caused by a combination of human error and machine failure – as in the machine failed to accurately compensate for human error. Even though this will be smaller than the number of human-error-only accidents, people will perceive the unfamiliar risk as greater than the familiar risk. Which will slow widespread acceptance.

    • Kaito Kid

      I feel like I’m going to be pulling my own hair out a ridiculous number of times in the next few years, every time society will complain about self-driving cars following an accident that also happened to a hundred human-driving cars in the same day.