Another good move by the industry leader came forth in “Waymo inches closer to driverless car launch with repair deal” (Steve Dent, Engadget, November 2nd). The partner is AutoNation, cited as “America’s largest auto retailer,” which will use its skill at maintaining massive numbers of cars to meet the expectation that, as their CEO put it, the autos will “be in service for hundreds of thousands of miles, much more than personal-use vehicles, to make them economically viable.” Will they or won’t they? Their chances would be best if they were diesel, but we know by now that won’t be the case.
Pedestrians can usually cross streets wherever they want, laws or not, so it would be mostly a formality if “Self-driving cars could make jaywalking legal” (Matt McFarland, cnn.com, November 3rd). This “crime,” which the article points out was invented with the coming of cars with drivers, may go out with their replacements, which will be able to stop more consistently. In any event, it would be good riddance to lose this infraction so small that few police even care about it.
In Gizmodo on November 3rd, Kate Conger addressed an attitude change in “We Need To Be Okay With Self-Driving Cars That Crash, Researchers Say.” She rightfully contrasted the attention given Joshua Brown’s death, which involved driverless technology, with 37,000 annual others which did not, and publicized someone else’s question of just how safe autonomous vehicles need to be for them to be legal, concluding that if they are “just a little bit” less dangerous, they could save massive numbers of lives. It’s now clear, though, that there will be no great cutover, but phased in a city and state at a time, which will provide plenty of data encouraging other places to accept them. Conger’s view was more or less echoed by Aarian Marshall in Wired’s November 7th “To Save the Most Lives, Deploy (Imperfect) Self-Driving Cars ASAP,” in which the author points out that “today, autonomous vehicles are about as good as a standard crappy driver.” Of course, though, unlike the latter they will improve, month by month.
Michelle Chavez, writing in Fox News on the same date, told us about more progress from a beleaguered company in “Uber prepares next generation of self-driving cars.” They may be overstating a bit, though, to say that their vehicles “could be on the road as early as the end of this year,” with so little time remaining, but it still looks like a good development for a firm that badly needs to get rid of its human drivers. That company started off two more promising headlines later, in CNBC’s November 20th “Uber has an idea to keep you from getting sick when you read in self-driving cars” (seasickness, which is genetic, may well need attention here), and “Uber Strikes Deal With Volvo To Bring Self-Driving Cars to Its Network” (Mike Isaac in The New York Times among many other sources, also November 20th). On November 7th, Megan Rose Dickey’s TechCrunch “Renault shows off self-driving car that can avoid obstacles as well as pro test drivers” highlighted more real improvements.
Three days later, though, wasn’t too late to see that “Las Vegas expands its self-driving shuttle tests this week” (Jon Fingas, Engadget) – the full-year trial was scheduled to start November 8th, and did. The debut made the news, but not for anything good, as within an hour the bus collided, though at only a couple of miles per hour, with a truck that backed improperly, getting its driver a ticket. Jeff Zurschmeide, who got his account, “I was on the self-driving bus that crashed in Las Vegas. Here’s what really happened,” published by Digital Trends on November 9th, called it “the result of human error,” but pointed out that the truck driver may have been misled, as the shuttle did not stop and give him more space, or even sound its horn. Is this another situation calling for different programming, or just one telling us that we need to realize that autonomous vehicles will, indeed, drive with great caution but no imagination? It’s a good real-life case to study.
In Forbes, Bernard Marr took a loftier view in the November 6th “The Future Of The Transport Industry – IoT, Big Data, AI and Autonomous Vehicles.” He offered two reasonable predictions for 2020, that there will be 10 million driverless autos sharing the roads with 250 million “smart cars,” a phrase he uses not to describe tiny German vehicles but “cars connected to high-tech networks.” We will depend on that grid, which is in its infancy now, to get us through the rough times when large numbers of both meatmobiles and self-driving vehicles will be out there.
A worthwhile summary of an area addressed little in the popular print was Yahoo Finance’s November 9th “The ‘Driverless’ Car Era: Liability Considerations.” We don’t know who or what will pay when autonomous vehicles do damage from negligence, but we will resolve that issue somehow. Meanwhile, Detroit Free Press paid attention to even more difficult issues with Todd Spangler’s November 23rd “Self-driving cars programmed to decide who dies in a crash.” Disasters will happen, people will argue about them, and ethicists and philosophers are starting to weigh in. It won’t be easy for them. As computer programming demanded that we be specific about our instructions, driverless vehicles will require that we be explicit, as well as standardized, about our ethics. In the over 2,500 years this field has been around, we haven’t come close to that – but we will, ultimately, have no alternative.
We finish today’s post, and the last regular installment of this series, with three positive pieces. In the November 12th New York Times “Where Self-Driving Cars Go to Learn,” Cecilia Kang showed us how Arizona’s relatively laissez-faire legal stance has helped the state as well as the industry. Washington Post’s “Driverless cars may help disabled, elderly,” reprinted in the November 24th Times Herald-Record, asked questions about wheelchair accessibility, which, if required for all autonomous taxis, could massively increase their cost and even their sizes, but acknowledged that such vehicles, even with less expensive accommodations, will be flexible and greatly beneficial for people with other disabilities. Joe Rinzel got “Driverless cars can transport lives – if we change the rules and let them” on the November 21st USA Today editorial page – the article, as well as announcing that Central Florida has joined Michigan, California, and the state above in the front line of the technology, made a case for friendlier laws nationwide.
Next week, I will address the New York Times November 12th magazine issue, which was dedicated to the subject of this series, and wrap up, for now, with some conclusions. While I now need to allow room for other subjects, there will be much more here on driverless cars in the years to come.