Friday, May 17, 2019

Sluggish or Catastrophic? Five Months of Autonomous Vehicle Non-Progress - II

Since March, despite the general slowdown in driverless car progress and stories about it, some noteworthy articles have been published.  Several reveal another reason why we are now off 2017 and 2018 projections – a backlash.  One piece here is “self-driving car technology can’t deliver on overblown ride-sharing promises,” by Ashley Nunes in the March 4th USA Today.  Here we see several negative misconceptions too often written.  They include insisting on autonomous perfection when there are 30,000-plus driver-error deaths annually (“unless self-driving tech is proven faultless, ceding control of public safety to algorithms is unlikely”), confusing their current state with that to be required for proliferation (“sensors and software might trim the need for human labor but do not… purge that need entirely”), forgetting that taxi equivalents will not work in rural areas, so therefore will not wipe out personal car ownership (“Robocabs… will be cheaper… a better bargain for consumers than owning a car”), and impatience, ignoring almost unbelievable three-year progress (“a technology that never seems to quite arrive”).  There are real points to be made against autonomous vehicles, but they will be obscured with so much common erroneous thinking.

Next, on to the recent Lyft IPO and their competitor’s still-pending one, with Kate Conger’s April 18th New York Times “Uber’s Self-Driving Cars are Valued at $7.25 Billion by Investors.”  That company division, called the Autonomous Technology Group, is receiving billions of dollars from outside investors and will have its own board, facilitating the possibility of detaching if Uber cannot improve.  That is a good thing for them, as between Uber’s being “deeply unprofitable” and losing $1.8 billion in 2018, their propensity for breaking the law, and their doubtful viability if regulated as much as other taxi companies, it is one of the last companies in which I would want to invest.  Yet their instituting a snail’s-pace timeline, as bad as that looked, may indicate a new attempt at behaving decently.  I think if the rest of Uber went out of business, this piece could be successful both in the market and on Wall Street.

As the next article and the final one show, the amount of driverless backlash varies between age groups.  Andy Meek’s April 20th Salon “Millennials are the demographic most open to self-driving cars, but not by much” started with the revelation that Ford’s chief executive had admitted they “overestimated the arrival” of autonomous vehicles, and that, for that company at least, “their applications will be narrow.”  From there, Meek cited a HarrisX study, apparently given to people in that age group, showing that three-fourths were “very afraid” of them with 90% citing possible technical mishaps, but 70% thought progress had exceeded expectations.  The present-future confusion mentioned above again crept in, but it is noteworthy that even people young enough to be more accepting of driverless cars agree, as a group, that the current state of development is insufficient for widespread propagation. 

Within seconds of printing Dalvin Brown’s April 23rd USA Today “Can Elon Musk’s robotaxi plan help Tesla owners make $30,000 a year?”, I wrote, next to that headline, “NO!!”  Musk must have been using something stronger than what he smoked during a September interview to say that in a year, or “a year and three months,” meaning April or July 2020, there would be “over a million robotaxis on the road,” and the idea of those with Teslas viably adding theirs to the fleet sounds more like 2025.  As optimistic as I have been, between technology delays and acceptance barriers as above I see no chance of either that quickly.  Also, especially with the slowdown, it is losing business strategy to overpromise, especially by market leaders.

Last, we have an organized effort, documented by M. R. O’Connor on April 30th in The New Yorker in “The Fight for the Right to Drive.”  The group, the Human Driving Association, strives not only to continue allowing nonautonomous vehicles, but to require each to have a steering wheel and pedals, to mandate that all cars to be fully human-drivable, and to guarantee those things through a constitutional amendment.  Founder Alex Roy backs its ideology from environmental, freedom, technology-value disagreement, and personal-preference perspectives, with justifications ranging from the worthless (matching future laws with current expertise, as twice above) and the tradeoff-refusing (that “autonomy = freedom,” and cutting the latter would automatically be bad), to the intriguing (people may want to drive themselves for communitarian reasons such as those keeping the Amish using horses) and the naïve (to give us “meaningful work and individual agency”).  Roy’s group doesn’t have much to offer for alternatives, mentioning “investing in mass-transit” (has always happened), “build(ing) bike lanes” (only a small niche solution, and a step down in life quality for the vast majority), “adoption of electric cars” (as I recently posted, after 130 years of progress and decades of subsidies they don’t get 1% of sales), and “cell phone jamming devices in cars” (no more passengers using them either, I guess).  These losing ideas, along with assuming that driverless rides being paid for by advertising means that families should not appreciate saving maybe $1,000 per month, along with overall pushing against the tide of history, don’t give us enough to support.  Such a group, though, may help ensure that there are roads, maybe even some current cross-country expressways, that people will even at mid-century be able to drive; after all, riding horses is still legal on most public thoroughfares.

On self-driving progress, then, I’ll go for “sluggish,” along with “impeded.”  I will return to this issue with July autonomous-vehicle projections.  Expect that they will be somewhere between what Elon Musk is claiming and what some of the people quoted above expect to see.

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