Thursday, June 28, 2018

Autonomous Vehicles: The Past Three Months

In less than two weeks I will post my current projected numbers of taxi and truck driving jobs, with expected driverless car saturation dates.  To clear the way, here is what has happened since mid-March.

Is it possible to incapacitate an autonomous vehicle with only a bag of flour?  Derrick Rossignol, writing in (“Trapping a Self-Driving Car is Surprisingly Easy”) on March 21st, shows how it just might be.  Required is a solid white circle made around the car, with a dotted-line circle just outside it.  
That emphasizes possible problems with software inflexibility, and reminds me of the words of one of my mid-1980s technical school teachers: “debugging never stops.”

For anyone who might have doubted it, autonomous mobility does not preclude accidents caused by others, with one well described in “Google self-driving van involved in crash in Arizona, driver injured” (Elizabeth Weise and Adrian Marsh, USA Today, May 4th).  Here “a car being driven by a human swerved to avoid another human-driven car and crashed into it.”  The van’s driverless status contributed zero percent. 

Better, though, you don’t agree with that blame assessment than, per “NASA and Uber are getting serious about flying cars” (Fox News, May 11th), trust the latter company with your safety in a tiny craft up in the air.  However, as Kirsten Korosec put it in the May 22nd Yahoo Finance “Consumer Trust in Self-Driving Car Technology Has Made a Sudden U-Turn,” people may be losing confidence in autonomous technology in general, with research finding that the April share of “U.S. drivers… afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle” was 73%.  That may be up a bit since the deadly March accident, though with its changed wording and framing of the question in the immediate present it should not be discouraging.  We also saw that “Uber ends self-driving program in Arizona after fatal crash” (Michael Liedtke, Fox Business, May 24th), a strange decision even for them – what’s the matter with that state, which otherwise has led the way in embracing this technology, in particular?

So what do driverless cars need to achieve to be generally accepted?  Last week I alluded to one answer, per Risk Analysis research, that “Study:  Self-Driving Vehicles Must Be 4 times as Safe as Human Drivers” (Alexa Lardieri, U.S. News & World Report, May 31st).  Per the article, “autonomous vehicles present their own set of risks, making a “perfectly safe” self-driving vehicle “both technologically and economically infeasible,” but the level named is both reasonable and attainable – not to mention one at which almost 30,000 American lives per year would be saved.  A fine working objective. 

I’m not sure I agree that “Self-Driving Cars Likely Won’t Steal Your Job (Until 2040),” (Aarian Marshall, Wired, June 13th), but that’s what a “new report” from Securing America’s Future Energy pointed to, and it’s in the ballpark.  Points Marshall made were that “robo-cars won’t disappear the jobs all at once,” but that “it’s time to prep for fewer truckers and cab drivers, right now,” and, conservatively it seems to me, “the economists estimate (driverless technology) might reduce crash costs by $118 billion annually by 2050.”  It’s fitting, then, that the long-time most safety-oriented carmaker has become the first to announce, though perforce tentatively, “Volvo’s 2021 autopilot to lets (sic) drivers eat, sleep and work” (Chris Mills, New York Post, June 25th), the first production Level 4, per the Society of Automotive Engineers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions” and in which “the driver may have the option to control the vehicle.”  Will they deliver?

We end with two Motley Fool pieces, “Driverless Tech Will Impact These 5 Industries” (Jeremy Bowman, June 11th) and “3 Top Driverless Car Stocks” (Chris Neiger, June 20th.)  I take seriously this company’s recommendations for investment, especially for general information, since the Watergate logic of following the money, and the effort and true progress behind it, well clarifies situations rife with vaporware and overrepresentations.  As often, both pieces are rich with supporting commentary and information; these two printed out to 15 and 14 pages and do not waste that length.  The business areas Bowman identified – auto manufacturers themselves, auto insurance, ridesharing and taxis, gas stations and convenience stores, and hotels and airlines – hardly form an exhaustive list, but are the largest and most obvious from analysis.  He thought that the first and third will prosper in new ways, and the other three might take a beating.  Neiger’s three stocks were General Motors, Alphabet, and Aptiv – an automaker and two gunrunners.  They also are high-quality choices, though nobody knows if they will even make it, let alone be the best. 

For the July 11th issue, I look at what major things have changed the path of the autonomous-vehicle industry in the past year – along with the estimates above. 

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