An American government organization wanting, apparently by its own choice, to regulate less! That’s the subject of “NHTSA seeks to remove old obstacles to clear the way for self-driving cars” (Eric Brackett, Yahoo News, October 28th).
Yes indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “was seeking input on how it could remove regulations that are slowing down the production and deployment of self-driving cars.” These rules haven’t stopped much so far, but if unchanged they will soon. It’s time for discussion, negotiation, and official recognition that the nature of vehicles is changing, and hats off to this rare federal agency for seeing that. Meanwhile, in the same source and on the same date, per author Trevor Mogg, “Waymo tootles into Detroit with its self-driving car project,” where, at its proving ground actually in Novi, it will learn more about driverless ice and snow coping.
It’s better for any vehicle to make its mistakes in cyberspace instead of in bricks-and-mortarland. On October 29th in The New York Times’s “What Virtual Reality Can Teach a Driverless Car,” Cade Metz recapped the state of this art, including how much faster such “learning” can be at computer speeds, the “complete control” researchers can use, and the problems of checking up on what machines are ready to implement. The best use for this tool seems to be along with human perceptions and direction, especially in developing subsystems, such as determining braking speed and intensity, where theory may be insufficient.
There are many reasons why first-world cities will adopt autonomous vehicles the earliest. One is how the humans drive there. In Wired.com’s “Prepping Self-Driving Cars for the World’s Most Chaotic Cities,” also on October 29th, Kaveh Waddell contrasted the most disordered American cities, properly using Boston as an example, with those in “developing countries” with “huge, anarchic intersections” and “drivers who have little to zero respect for lanes, traffic signals, warning signs, and speed limits.” There is a gap between programming the possibility of vehicles going through red lights a second or two late and dealing with those disregarding all laws. There is also a difference between stricter enforcement of traffic regulations all drivers understand and the need to create order where there is none. This problem will keep much of the world’s autonomous vehicle saturation and even significant introduction well behind.
China presents its own problems, such as the previous article’s note that different regions there have sharply differing traffic signs and customs. Yet its own driverless company is at least trying to forge ahead. John Fingas’s Yahoo Finance “Baidu teams with ride-hailing service to fast track self-driving cars,” still from October 29th, told us how that firm is working with national ride-hailing company Shouqi and its extensive mapping knowledge to offer self-driving vehicles themselves along with trips in them. In the United States, “Toyota will test autonomous cars at California’s GoMentum station” (Darrell Etherington, also Yahoo Finance, October 30th), that location a proving ground in Walnut Creek. Related activity from the same source on this paragraph’s third continent is planned for December 4th and 5th, featuring the CEO of one European startup. To learn more about what’s planned for this conference, see “The race for the autonomous car is on, and hear Five AI attack plan at Disrupt Berlin,” by Mike Butcher, also on October 30th.
The farthest-reaching October 30th driverless vehicle story, though, came from Wired. In “How to Design Streets for Humans – And Self-Driving Cars,” Aarian Marshall took an urban-planning view on how cities might change once human vehicle operators go away, using a National Association of City Transportation Officials’ “50-page blueprint” – for example, with thinner travel lanes, “tiny parks” instead of parking meters, crosswalk removal, paved areas used for both rush-hour travel lanes and delivery vans, and “at night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs.” All are reasonable possibilities.
Consumer Reports, a source of hitherto unbridled skepticism about self-driving technology, looked “Inside Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Castle” (October 31), and found “a mock community” with that company’s employees, termed ““Fauxes,” who ride bikes, jaywalk and drive cars erratically in a bid to get the self-driving software to understand how to drive in the real world.” The article described excellent results coping with such things as “a Faux with car trouble… walking around a disabled vehicle holding his head, talking on a cell phone” and “a group of four Fauxes pretend(ing) to be a sloppy moving crew,” who “spill boxes out onto the road in front of a Waymo test car.” This work is one of the exact things on which driverless vehicle consortia need to focus, and their ability to deal with these problems, already, should ease concerns of Consumer Reports readers and others not believing they can do that. Related, “Waymo’s CEO says self-driving cars are ‘really close’ to being ready for the road – but plenty of challenges remain” (Troy Wolverton, Yahoo Finance, also October 31st.) This company leader, John Krafcik, talked forthrightly with reporters about its strengths and current weaknesses, the latter including a self-driving vehicle, that if faced with “a moving van that was double-parked,” might never move without human intervention. On the other Halloween-published issue about that company, “Waymo’s self-driving car challenge: Making it easier to pick up passengers” in CNBC, the solution seems simple: Ask a taxi driver! Cabdrivers become experts at judging where their customers will get into and out of their vehicles, and most if not all of that thinking can be quantified and programmed.
We end Installment 7 with a famous author and “avowed car buff” who would do well to read this blog. When “Malcolm Gladwell looks at the future of self-driving cars” (CBS News, once more October 31st), he apparently sees things that have been in the press for months if not years: that “a host of issues must be resolved before self-driving cars hit the streets en masse,” the need for “a social calculation” when deciding what to collide with, the hacking problem, and losing “the pleasure that many people get from driving.” These Gladwell might be publishing now, if he had just released a book with content put to bed six months or more ago. Yet developments in this field are too rapid for that; a book on the subject, even if researched and written impeccably, would be obsolete on release. Accordingly, let’s hope that Gladwell doesn’t write one soon.