Friday, December 30, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Technology and Business

Beyond the views, what’s been happening with self-driving vehicles over the past several months?

In “A Lesson of Tesla Crashes?  Computer Vision Can’t Do It All Yet” (The New York Times, September 19), Steve Lohr recapped May’s fatal Florida accident, correctly judging that “the man placed too much confidence in Tesla’s self-driving system.”  The issue is that naming it something like “autopilot,” when it is designed only to spell operators for problem-free and probably short times, is asking for trouble, and now, what with the well-publicized state of advancement in the field, is unnecessary.  When more progress is made with technologies such as the one Lohr described, Stanford and Princeton Universities’ ImageNet, and problems such as the connection between Tesla’s driving and braking systems which caused that crash are fixed, drivers will be more able to disengage.

On that same date, in Business Insider’s “Uber’s self-driving cars are impressive – but there’s still a lot we can’t do,” Danielle Muoio described her experience riding in one of Uber’s Pittsburgh test cars, summarizing that they had real problems “simply having to deal with other human drivers on the road.”  As she photographed in action, during her ride the operator needed to take over control when an 18-wheel truck turned right, from the left lane, in front of them.  The Uber test, per Muoio, is also uncovering issues these vehicles have:  with bridges, given the lack of buildings next to them; with snow, since it covers up lane markings and other orientation markers;  and even with trees, which look different enough in summer and winter for the systems to identify specific ones.  On the other hand, these tests are running up miles, and Google’s has, as of October 5th (Wall Street Journal), reached 2,000,000 of them. 

Sunday Review in The New York Times is a good place for issues we should be thinking about, even without solid conclusions, and that perfectly describes Azim Shariff, Iyad Rahwan, and Jean-Francois Bonnefon’s November 3rd “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?”  This was not the first time I or others have mentioned the issue of how driverless cars should be programmed when faced with a choice “between risks to its passengers and risks to a potentially greater number of pedestrians,” but it didn’t need to be.  We learned here that when Science magazine presented the results of people being surveyed on life-or-death scenarios, “a large majority… agreed that cars that impartially minimized overall casualties were more ethical, and were they type they would like to see on the road,” but also that “most people” showed “a strong preference for buying the self-protective one” instead.  That looks like a crime of the 2030s – people illegally modifying their driverless vehicle software to protect themselves first. 

In that same newspaper the next day, Henry Fountain’s “A Slow Ride Toward the Future of Public Transportation” raised some less commonly presented issues.  He mentioned the appearance of driverless buses around Helsinki campuses and factories, and suggested, correctly for once, that self-driving cars would cut auto sales “in cities” – not in the country.  Those, along with a first experimental bus in public territory, use a combination of environment-detecting sensors and an approach described 64 years ago for automating barbers in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, capturing and replicating the motions of human drivers.  The piece also mentioned a local computer application, Whim, which Finns can now use to not only plan but book transportation, the forms to be determined by the system, by keying in starting point and destination.

On December 13 in Salon, we found that Google’s driverless effort is now named Waymo, and that the company, ever optimistic, officially expects their vehicles to be “commonplace” in four years or less.  That same day, Cecilia Kang in the Times (Cars Talking to One Another?  They Could Under Proposed Safety Rules) suggested something I should have thought of myself, that driverless vehicles routinely broadcast, air-traffic-control style, their location, speed, and direction to each other.  This plan has the backing and involvement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, when technical and bureaucratic issues with radio frequencies are resolved, seems a huge favorite to be implemented.

From December 14th to December 21st, covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, we saw the rise and fall of Uber’s San Francisco self-driving taxi service.  On that first date they announced that it, though only provided by five cars, would be available throughout that entire city.  They tried to sidestep local regulations by claiming they were not autonomous, and indeed each would have two people, a driver and an engineer, in front, but the imprecision of the laws ended up working against them, and, after the California Department of Motor Vehicles cancelled the cars’ registrations, the service was discontinued.  It will come back, though, at another place, most likely within months.

On December 22nd in Salon, Angelo Young told us that Google’s first Waymo vehicle is now planned to be a minivan.  It’s as least as good as any, since, as modern-day station wagons, minivans accommodate a variety of occupants and cargo, and the expected much greater safety of self-driving cars would appeal to the same demographic. 

Fox Business peeked at the stock investment merits of two major driverless players, including Google’s parent company (“How Apple and Alphabet are De-risking their Self-Driving Car Efforts,” December 23rd).  Commentators Dylan Lewis and Daniel Sparks reached the same conclusion that I did months ago, that producing such things is too much for any single firm.  They added properly that, unlike what these companies are accustomed to in the smartphone market, they will not be able to achieve “high-30%” profit margins, and that both would like to minimize the manufacturing they do themselves.  Yet somebody must make them – could they get away with pawning off this tangible product bearing their nameplate on someone else?  We will see.

Finally, two days ago, Brent Snavely mentioned a name not as commonly mentioned in the driverless world as its competitors.  In “Brain in the Trunk:  Ford to unveil next self-driving car” (Detroit Free Press), he says that Henry’s old company is, along with the others, “investing heavily” in the technology, and is focusing farther down the road, “to develop a fully autonomous car that does not require the driver to operate the vehicle.”  I’m not sure this is a good place to try to leapfrog competitors, but what do I know?  They are hoping to do that without any special roadway technology, by reading where they are going through LIDAR and visual sensors.

So how about jobs?  Hang on to your hat – 2017 will be quite a year.  Expect an updated look at how many truck driving, cabdriving, auto sales, and other positions might be lost by when, sometime in the middle of it. 

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