Embrace The Nightmare Scenario of Self-Driving Cars

The designers and boosters are in the driver’s seat.

Perspective depends on where one sits and what one needs to do. As the old adage goes, to a hammer, everything is a nail. Variations of the saying have been around since at least Buddha. It is more formally known as Law Of The Instrument, and is described on the Decision Lab website as “when we acquire or are given a specific tool/skill (such as computer programming), we tend to be influenced by its function and utility – leading us to see opportunities to use that tool/skill everywhere. Although this can expand our worldview in innovative ways, it can become a cognitive bias if we only approach problems using that one tool/skill.”

The problem when it comes to self-driving cars is that most discussions come from a bias favoring cars over other modes of transit. As the people leading the discussion are building the cars and pushing for their implementation.

I came across an article in the New York Times last Friday entitled Make Way for Self-Driving Cars. The piece starts with “Imagine Manhattan without jaywalking.” Many can, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a bridge-and-tunnel guy, had fencing put up around 49th and 50th streets on fifth and sixth avenues to deter pedestrians in favor of drivers in 1997. He left office at the end of 2001, but the steel fences remain, and the NYPD, at least as recently as 2017, was still engaging in similar actions.

Five paragraphs later, the story reads, “One solution, suggested by an automotive industry official, is gates at each corner, which would periodically open to allow pedestrians to cross.” The online version of the story is entitled, “How Jaywalking could Jam Up the Era of Self-Driving Cars.”

The rest of the story seems to come from the same bias. Society is the problem and society will need to change.

“Self-driving cars represent “the single-most transformative societal change in decades,” Mr. Rosekind said. ‘We have to be ready for it.’

“Unfortunately, we’re not.

“How society will adjust, or what we can do to mitigate cultural upheavals, is just beginning to be discussed. Today, there are few answers.”

I would have hoped people would have learned from the first 120 years of the automobile that we should have adapted driving to our needs, as opposed to adapted life to better work for driving.

Self-driving cars will be transformative. But if we don’t want to make it a hellish transformation, we should be limiting implementation until self-driving cars are ready for society. And society, not the self-driving car promoters, should be leading the discussion.

The rest of the article doesn’t inspire confidence, or even hope that those leading the charge have bothered to consider that human needs are more important than driving. He’s an example:

“’We may be able to locate crosswalks at different locations,’ he said. ‘A.V.s may be able to sense the presence of pedestrians and slow down when needed.’”

I would have hoped that the placement of crosswalks in most urban areas would be dictated by where it makes most sense for people to cross, or, at worst, a compromise on the needs of all those in motion. And I don’t think that self-driving cars should even be a consideration until they are able to sense the pedestrians and slow down when needed.

The article is filled with promises equally dubious. “Other potential changes include a reduction in the need for parking lots, once autonomous cars can simply park themselves anywhere, or circle around until they’re needed.” There is too much damn parking, true, but cars on the road for longer, using energy, taking up space, putting people at risk is not a solution. In fact, it’s magnifying the problem. Kind of like how Uber and other such services are jamming up cities with cars, increasing pollution, congestion, and danger.

The auto industry is pinning the acceptance of self-driving cars on lobbying, advertising, and self interest. The article tells us, “Their hope is that public sentiment toward autonomous cars will become more positive thanks to education efforts, and once people can buy them.”

Lobbying, advertising, and self-interest are how the car took over to begin with. And it was reinforced by government policy subsidizing driving over other means of transit. And with the narrow focus of both people and the media, combined with the money and influence of autonomous car proponents, it’s hard to imagine that much consideration, other than the distraction of a glittery future, will happen until self-driving cars have taken over.

There’s a dark article on the website of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE. Entitled, “The Big Problem With Self-Driving Cars Is People,” it takes a look at the issues that self-driving cars will have driving around people. The subtitle is more dire, “And we’ll go out of our way to make the problem worse.”

On the plus side, the author doesn’t think that the problem is people being human and acting in human ways. Rather that how autonomous vehicles are programmed to deal with people, and people with them, is far more complicated than even their programmers realize.

Hopefully, or rather “hopefully,” he believes, “engineers have a great deal of work ahead of them to make the cars safer, more capable, and more foolproof and to convince regulators to allow them onto the roads. These objectives are going to take longer than many proponents of automated driving realize or are prepared to admit.”

That was in 2017.

And yet they’re on the road, without any of the vexing problems of interacting with humans solved, or even driven safely. Yes, fans of them will tout their safety. However, in 2015, they were getting into accidents at “five times the rate of human-controlled cars.” At least according to accident reports. When the controlled for minor accidents, the rate was reduced to only double the rate. And in 2018, Uber’s self-driving cars could only go 13 miles without a human interaction. But even when you compare the miles self-driving cars are logging, it’s still way behind what human-controlled cars are driving, and in far more controlled environments than most drivers have to encounter. There were still questions about how to determine if computer-controlled cars were better in 2018.

As the IEEE author points out, we have yet to figure out how to fully automate mass transit systems, which are much easier to understand than driving on open roads. Seems like a great thing to work on. However, it doesn’t hold the promise of autonomous cars, possibly because it’s not nearly as profitable. And the train lobby doesn’t hold a candle to the auto lobby or the muscle of Silicon Valley.

Society, or at least the autonomous carmakers and their fans in the media, still aren’t bothering to look carefully at the problems, the solutions, and most importantly, what’s best for society.

The boosters, just like internet hucksters, are playing the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ game. They claim to see their future realized just around the corner. We shouldn’t defer to them–and we should be wary of any article that gives unqualified praise to self-driving cars. They rest of us should realize autonomous cars are way over the horizon, and will be for a long time. Meanwhile, there are plenty of easier solutions we could implement today which would have a measurable impact on safety, pollution, congestion, and travel times. We should be pushing for those rather than sitting around waiting for the future self-driving car promoters promise.

We need to knock the boosters and the designers out of the driver’s seat in this discussion.



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