Friday, March 17, 2017

Driverless Cars Tootle, Or Rather Speed, Into 2017 – Part 1

The current year is shaping up as a critical one for self-driving vehicles.  A great deal has happened already.

One large choice, or “metadecision,” as we could call it, is how much of the burden of getting driverless vehicles information on what’s around them should be borne by the roadways.  In “States Wire Up Roads as Cars Get Smarter” (The Wall Street Journal, January 2), author Paul Page described signs recently installed in the Washington area warning drivers of upcoming problems, such as in the story a sudden thunderstorm, of which they may not yet be aware.  Such things are valuable both for our current meatmobiles and for self-driving cars and trucks, but, as Page mentioned and probably understated, the amount of money “needed to wire the nation’s more than 4 million miles of paved roads and 250,000 intersections” would be in the billions of dollars.  For a variety of reasons, including lower cost and more flexible technology improvement implementation, I expect that the vehicles will need to be the smart ones, and industry consensus on that should be reached within two years.

The same publication, a week later, issued Stephen Wilmot’s “How the Auto Makers Can Survive the Self-Driving Car.”  This piece was directed toward investors, who would do better to disregard two things it contains: the assertion that “electric cars are starting to take off” (which they have been doing for 50 years, and look no stronger now with recent sales crashing to almost nothing in states which have replaced their subsidies with registration charges in lieu of fuel taxes), and the idea that driverless taxi services, since rides in them will cost less, will cause huge drops in car sales, even starting “this decade.”  Wilmot also pointed out, though, that concentrated auto purchases by whatever companies win the self-driving taxi battle will “undermine the stable system of car dealerships that has controlled the industry for decades” (good riddance, as I see it), and that those who choose not to buy cars, who will be almost exclusively in urbanized areas, will instead purchase “mobility as a service,” which could take the form of agreements with these corporations to obtain transportation in different ways to cover different needs.  Companies could, for example, deploy automated taxis for trips to airports, but deliver customer-driven Jeeps for summer-home weekends – look for such agreements to be commonplace by the middle of the next decade.

We learned, also from Paul Page in The Wall Street Journal, that one of the last things the Obama administration did was to start a federal point of contact for driverless-vehicle regulation (“U.S. Sets Up an Advisory Panel on Self-Driving Cars,” January 11).  The 25-person committee was designed to include top executives from General Motors, Amazon, Uber, Alphabet, and FedEx, so can hardly be accused of being anti-business.  Creation of that panel, even though we don’t yet know what regulations will be ongoing, was a positive step.

Driverless technology has also moved along this year.  “Waymo’s self-driving cars need less driver intervention” (Ryan Randazzo, Arizona Republic, January 13) documented how Google’s driverless autos, which have been tested in Arizona for several months, now need human intervention only every 5,000 miles, and, by using GPS and radar, can assess their environments for 200 yards in each direction.  Still, new problems continue to appear.  In “These Drivers Are Not Crazy – They’re Just Doing the ‘Pittsburgh Left’” (The Wall Street Journal, January 20), James R. Hagerty described that city’s motorists’ custom of letting others turn left in front of them.  While technically illegal it is commonplace there, and is often authorized by drivers waving or blinking lights.  The same practice is also frequent in Boston, and other American areas, such as New Jersey and California with multiple consecutive lane-changes, have their own deviations.  Either laws against these maneuvers will end up being enforced, driverless vehicles will need to anticipate them in some places but not in others, or that light-clash or hand-wave will be officially mandated – something will work.

Given that most people have never seen one in action, it is no surprise that we have “consumers still confused about self-driving cars” (AFP Relax News, January 18).  This early in their implementation, it is not disturbing at all that 72% to 81% of Korean, German, Japanese, and American survey respondents said they didn’t yet trust the things.  More telling, however, is the 68% of people in our country who “said they’d change their opinion once such cars have proven they’re safe.”  Those in one industry, though, understand them much better.  In “Self-driving Cars a Sure Bet – Just Ask Insurance Companies” (Newsmax, January 17), Lee Gruenfeld called their implementation “a slam-dunk certainty,” and cited an insurance executive as saying “the self-driving car is going to eat us alive” and that his or her company had planned on “automobile-related revenues being down by 50 percent at the end of ten years.”  We can take that to the bank, since, as Gruenfeld put it, “if you know any actuaries, you know that these are serious people not given to flights of fancy.”  We may not achieve great oil-consumption savings, as he suggested, but the almost certain precipitous drop in highway deaths is reason enough to agree.

Given that, we can take the idea of making driverless vehicles illegal in my state, to save jobs, as humorous.  Yet, in David Curry’s “Really?  A 50-year ban to self-driving cars in New York?” (Transport, January 17), we learn that the Upstate Transportation Association is trying to do just that.  They have about as much chance of success as this week’s 26 inches of snow has of melting this weekend – and that is a good thing. 

More on this topic next week.

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