Friday, April 20, 2018

Driverless Cars – A Wider Windshield – I

It’s now been a hair under four months since I concluded months of reporting on autonomous vehicles with ten central ideas.  Those points are still valid, but since then there has been plenty of progress and news both good and bad.  Unless you want to grant that to artificial intelligence in general, this field remains at the forefront of technological growth, and will have a massive and progressive effect on employment in America and the world.

There continues to be an outpouring of news – technical progress here and there, regulatory changes, companies appearing and then either staying in the public eye or vanishing from it, lawsuits, sincere or other publicizing of future milestones, and a wide range of speculations and projections.  I could easily fill a post every week with those.  I will, instead, focus instead on the largest events, ideas I haven’t documented before or those worthy of more emphasis, and a broader look at how this transformation will affect us.  Here, then, is what since December 22nd fits.

We have already got used to free online services paid for by advertisers, so how about rides the same way?  The Atlantic explored that possibility, in December’s “Driverless Cars Could Make Transportation Free for Everyone – With a Catch.”  The unbilled authors suggest that people could routinely take self-driving vehicles that also stopped at “thoughtfully targeted” sponsoring places, using information gathered from virtual assistants and other electronic sources, as well as the likes of Starbucks and McDonalds, and might “drive slowly past featured properties for sale.”  Some would be disturbed by the use of personal data, but many others would like the lack of fares more, so such services would get plenty of customers, who would eventually dictate the proper level of privacy invasion through accepting or refusing such rides.  This service seems highly likely to be offered.

January had good driverless news in the form of a successful Consumer Electronics Show.  Although few ideas presented there had not been leaked or publicized, the Las Vegas convention gave attendees a chance to see them in person.  Some highlights, per Will Nicol’s “At CES 2018, autonomous cars took the wheel and drove into the future” (Yahoo News, January 11th), were Toyota’s e-Palette “big and largely empty” concept vehicle usable for anything from deliveries to mini-stores, Nvidia’s dedicated Drive Xavier processor, and, provided by Lyft and Aptiv, actual rides in self-driving vehicles, which the participants called, reassuringly enough, “remarkably ordinary.”  If the CES were open to the public, it would have hundreds of thousands of attendees. 

Finally, for this week, The Economist dedicated much of its March 3rd issue to autonomous technology.  Its front article, “Who is beyond the wheel?,” touched on several things.  For one, “AVs are on the threshold of being able to drive, without human supervision, within limited and carefully mapped areas.”  The piece correctly noted that car ownership would drop mainly in urban areas, and that its effects would probably include reduced traffic, cities changed by greater acceptance of long commutes, retailing when “shops can come to you,” easy entrée to “dynamic road-tolling and congestion charging,” and subsidized travel to chosen destinations.  Most importantly, the article discussed ways in which driverless vehicles documenting their passengers and trips “could also become a powerful means of social control,” in doing and acting on the likes of Uber’s identification of one-night stands and restriction of movement through refusing to go to certain places either in general or with specific riders. 

The remaining Economist stories were in a twelve-page Special Report, “Reinventing wheels.”  The section started with a recap of now-standard observations, such as changes in car ownership, the connection between driverless and electric vehicles, the need to deal with local as well as general driving rules and customs, their accessibility to children and the substance-impaired as well as those in wheelchairs, their broad-based and unexpected effects, and a brief technological wrap-up.  Author Tom Standage projected that they would not be available for private purchase until about 2028, but would be in fleets far before then, and would cause the number of urban vehicles, worldwide, to drop from one billion in 2015 to half that by 2035.  He pointed out that they could be integrated with public transportation by waiting at railway stations to take people home, and could facilitate a 50% reduction in, also, “the area of paved surface.”  In another piece, Standage quoted a Mobileye spokesman as suggesting that American road deaths could be cut from 40,000 per year to 40, and considered some extra consequences, such as fewer organ donations, and, as half of cigarettes are sold at gas stations, a further drop in smoking.  He said, about a situation already in progress, that “if cars are no longer symbols of independence and self-definition for the young,” something yet unidentified will need to replace them.  As our modern meatmobiles did with horse carriages, he noted, the move to driverless will greatly increase prosperity but at the cost of some freedoms.  That is the way modern history has been headed, and will continue to move. 

Next week, another look at the Arizona pedestrian death, along with what has happened in the driverless world since then. 

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