How are we groping along with what we expected, five years ago, to now be widespread?
The partially autonomous version, per “11 more crash deaths are linked to automated-tech vehicles” (Fox Business, October 18th) has issues of its own. While it’s not as bad as it sounds, for “mid-May through September,” and is not really “alarming” – we don’t hear about how many fatalities come from, say, faulty tires – it’s still getting attention. Ten of these deaths involved Teslas, of which there are 830,000 in the United States with this technology. But driver errors still kill over 40,000 Americans annually.
One application having real if small-scale autonomous success is taxicabs. In the November 1st Emerging Tech Brew, Hayden Field looked at how it might continue growing in “Why some robotaxi companies are looking for their Goldilocks cities.” Waymo, the implementation leader, has decided to focus on “scaling up an individual city rather than trying to be in 15” simultaneously. When the company wanted to operate in “a city that was semi-challenging but not impossible,” Phoenix offered “medium-high speed limits across many roads; a friendly regulatory environment; a fast-growing population; challenging maneuvers like unprotected left turns across three lanes of traffic; neighborhoods with varying population density;” and no snow or ice on roads. Next up is San Francisco, where similar efforts have been tried, valued for technical proximity and compactness. The piece also mentions a potential financial hurdle, as cities not wanting excessive numbers of empty robotaxis driving around might levy a “zombie tax” on them.
Soon thereafter, we got bad news from there, in “Self-Driving Taxis Are Causing All Kinds of Trouble in San Francisco” (David Zipper, Future Tense, December 8th). They had a 140-passenger trolley stopped as an autonomous vehicle “halted on the streetcar tracks and wouldn’t budge,” though human intervention held the delay to seven minutes. Such cars also have “blocked a travel lane needed by a siren-blaring fire engine” headed for a three-alarm blaze, and “dozens” of them “drove daily into a quiet cul-de-sac before turning around, much to the frustration of nearby residents.” Accordingly, people there and elsewhere “should brace for strange, disruptive, and dangerous happenings on their streets.”
Reporters have told us before what it is like to take rides in autonomous vehicles, so how different was the latest, from Cade Metz et al. in the November 14th New York Times, as they told us “What Riding in a Self-Driving Tesla Tells Us About the Future of Autonomy”? This six-hour ride was in Jacksonville, Florida, not a hub of self-driving activity. The story, which with pictures printed out to 14 pages, showed a mixed bag, with “more than 40 unprotected left-hand turns against oncoming traffic,” ability to change lanes and recognize green lights, and general success at dealing with “highways, exit ramps, city streets, roundabouts, bridges and parking lots,” but also, when going to a restaurant, “veering from the road into a motel parking lot,” almost “hitting a parked car after we rolled over a low curb,” and a need for the test driver to retake control “every so often” as the vehicle “makes a mistake.” The authors concluded that this “Tesla Model Y provides a glimpse of the future we are moving toward, which may prove to be safer, more reliable and less stressful, but it still years away from reality.” “Experts,” they maintained, “say no system could possibly have the sophistication needed to handle every possible scenario on any road,” as “this would require technology that mimics human reasoning – technology that we humans do not yet know how to build.” This conclusion seems after-the-fact, as it was not present in the great expectations of 2017 – we don’t know if it is true or not, and if so, how long it would take to create it.
After returning from a family driving vacation, Ross Douthat held forth on “What Driving Means for America,” in the July 20th New York Times. He invoked a Matthew Crawford book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, in which the author backed “the human being who moves purposively through the world rather than simply being carried through it,” and advocated being “mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion.” Douthat considered driving a way “to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble,” but admitted there might be other means to that end. We could relate experiences of airline passengers, who go from airport to plane to possibly very distant airport just as passively. It is certainly a tradeoff, but seems like a problem more comparable to that of choosing only more entertainment instead of fdgconstructive and self-directed pursuits. We won’t solve either one soon, but driverless cars, to the extent that we can get them effective and common, can offer us a great deal, and should not be precluded or rejected. On that we need to aim.