#286 Self Driving : The day I Became Redundant

The advantage of robotic cars of course is they will allow more free time for humans to catch up on email and cute kitten vids. But Smith’s mistrust of the “Future Perfect” is deep and abiding.

Dave Bowman: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Dave: “What’s the problem?”
HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
Dave: “What are you talking about, HAL?”
HAL: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
2001: A Space Odyssey

A curious thing happened in Nevada in May this year: a car passed its driving test.
Yes, you read that right. After negotiating freeways, state highways, suburban subdivisions and even the Las Vegas strip on its own, a robotically-controlled Google autonomous vehicle based on a Toyota Prius was granted a special Nevada driver’s licence, allowing it to roam the streets without any human input. The robotic Prius uses a combination of mapping data, radar, laser sensors and video feeds all linked to a central processor that operates the vehicle’s controls. California is also said to be considering legislation to allow cars to drive themselves on its roads.
If you think this sounds a little scary, Google’s self driving cars have already established a safety record well beyond human achievability with over 200,000 collision-free miles. Human error at some level accounts for almost all crashes on the street, to the point where Google’s engineers consider human interference to be a “bug” in their control systems. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is even on record as saying it’s “amazing to me” that humans are allowed to drive at all.
The autonomous car isn’t much of a stretch from a technical standpoint. Cars already park themselves, automatically maintain safe distances in traffic, and use infrared to “see” hazards at night. And there’s certainly a big enough incentive for the driverless car. There are around 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries on US roads each year (doubtless a proportionate toll in Canada), almost all attributable to human error. AAA estimates that costs the US a whopping $164.2 billion—aside from the personal suffering and distress.
I heard recently about research that shows today’s young drivers are far more interested in staying connected than with steering. When alerted to the dangers of distracted driving, texting teens will often respond that we’ve got it backwards: the car is the distraction, not the mobile device or dashboard display. They’d prefer the car took over the driving so they could watch more kitten videos. The car is getting in the way of their communications, not the other way around …
And future cars are going to carry a significantly larger load of connectivity, navigation and entertainment interfaces, whether fitted as original equipment or aftermarket. I remember a harrowing taxi ride in Warsaw a year or so ago as the driver wove his way through back-street traffic while catching up with his favourite soap on a TV plugged in the dash. That’s nothing compared to what’s coming down the pipe. The inexorable rise of distracted driving incidents will also steer us toward the self driving automobile .
So if the NexGens aren’t interested in driving for its own sake, then the self-driving car may catch on faster than we think. Most commentators expect the first autonomous vehicles to be delivery and public service vehicles, taxis and buses. There is more work to be done, though: autonomous cars don’t yet cope well with snow, or with hand directions given by traffic cops and flaggers. The good news—they’ll never turn left across your path.
So projecting into the future when the majority of cars and trucks on the road are robotic and driven perfectly safely—always stopping at stop signs, never speeding, never running red lights, never making unsafe turns or changes of direction—whither motorcycles? At first take, it sounds like heaven. Cars will know you’re there and stay out of your way. And as all the cars will be designed to drive within the law at all times (after all, how can you give a car a ticket?), there’ll be little justification for traffic enforcement. A biker’s paradise?
What about robotic motorcycles? They’ve certainly been demonstrated—in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Challenge, for example. But somehow I can’t see them catching on, unless it’s some kind of narrow-track three-wheeler like the Piaggio MP3. But then if your bike rides itself, you might as well get in a car.
So what’s not to like? Roads will be much safer and cars confined to steady processions of predictability, while motorcycles roam free. Sounds perfect? But be careful what you wish for …
How likely is it, once that tipping point has been reached and the majority of vehicles are robotic, that a klatch of unpredictable human-operated vehicles would be tolerated on the road? Not likely, because they’d be the only ones causing crashes. Motorcycles would be banished to join the penny-farthings and the boneshakers in the transportation museum. And here’s the catch—as a side effect of robotic cars making the roads safer for motorcycling, motorcycles will inevitably be consigned to the trash can of history.