How About A Selfless-Driving Car?

August 3, 2016

About 100 years ago, when interests in the new-fangled motor coaches began pushing for their proper place on the roads and streets of cities, one line of argument they used was the future, modernity. beholdthefutureYou can’t fight progress, you horse-and-buggy rubes. Get out of the way (literally), a new world is dawning! Only cavemen wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of this shiny new mode of transport, the automobile!!

(Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic is a fantastic primer in how hearts and minds were won over to the car’s cause by expert p.r. and lobbying).

Now, pretty much a century later, a similar line of argument is being made hailing the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles, the self-driving car. They are the future, and only stick in the mud luddites would fight the future. Because of this, because autonomous vehicles will transform the way we get around our urban environment, will cure the ills that the previous automobile age inflicted upon us, who in their right mind could possibly object? Resistance is futile. fightingtrafficJust sit back, load up Netflix on your laptop, and let the computer drive you to where you need to go.

There’s no question autonomous vehicles will improve certain aspects of urban transportation. By eliminating driver error, misjudgement, distraction, it’s conceivable that traffic flow will improve, fatalities will drop significantly. That’s all to the good, no argument from me there.

What autonomous vehicles won’t solve is the sticky point of induced demand. We do know for a fact, after decades and decades of observation, that whenever we endeavour to make driving easier or more attractive – like increasing road space – more people take advantage of it and rush out to fill up that space. Congestion is never alleviated, at least not for very long. Self-driving may make being stuck in traffic less unpleasant but they will not solve what is essentially a ‘geometry’ problem, as Jarrett Walker wrote ten days ago in Human Transit.

An equally intriguing aspect of the self-driving car among us is what’s being called the moral or ethical algorithm behind its programming. squarepeg1While autonomous vehicles will certainly reduce our current road carnage, there’s no reason to believe collisions will be eliminated entirely. If not, what should our expectations be in terms of outcomes?

The ‘utilitarian’ autonomous vehicle, as it’s being called, might be programmed for the greater good. That is, when faced with a situation where a collision is inevitable, an autonomous vehicle responds by inflicting the least damage possible including ‘sacrificing’, let’s call it, its own passengers if that keeps the harm inflicted to a minimum. Essentially, if forced to choose between the prospect of swerving into a crowd of 10 pedestrians standing on the sidewalk to avoid an object straight ahead of it or crashing into that object, the utilitarian autonomous vehicle will crash into the obstacle, endangering the lives of the <10 passengers inside of it.

If it happens, of course, and if proponents of self-driving cars are to be believed, it won’t happen very often if at all, because, you know, technology rarely comes with bugs or glitches, but if collisions do occur, as infrequently as they might, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the greater good will be served. Done, and done. prisonersdilemmaWe’re good here, right?

Apparently, it’s not going to be as clear cut and simple as all that. The future, when it comes, seldom is.

In a study published in the journal Science back in June, Our driverless dilemma, researchers found in a series of online surveys conducted, most people were all for the ‘utilitarian’ approach to self-driving cars, the greater, collective good, in theory. But when it came to driving one themselves? Public safety for others, self-preservation for me. This double standard hardened even further when questions of driving with family members arose. My child or some stranger standing on a street corner? I’ll take Ridiculous Questions for $500, Alex.

This should hardly come as a surprise. Traffic is other people, right? After the freedom of the open road with the wind blowing back your hair angle that car manufacturers use to advertise their product, the 2nd approach is always about safety, especially safety for the children riding, buckled up in the backseat. Bigger, bulkier vehicles not only promise to deliver an elevated status on their owners but also bestow a sense of security on all those riding within. trafficcongestion1Damage control on the inside with a big, fat fuck you to everything and everyone on the outside.

Rather than some theoretical undergrad philosophy exam question, this presents a much fuzzier future for self-driving cars. As the study’s researchers suggest, if people will be less inclined to buy or ride in autonomous vehicles that don’t put their safety first, who’s going to manufacture them? Will governments then bend to the will of those who’ve invested mightily in a driverless future, and maintain the status quo of acceptable losses on our roads, fingers crossed that they will be radically less than the numbers we’ve learned to live with? Is that the kind of future we should be building toward, Just like now, only less?

“Before we can put our values into machines,” Joshua Greene writes in Science, “we have to figure out how to make our values clear and consistent.”

mansbestfriendWhen it comes to prioritizing transportation choices, our values have been very clear and consistent. The safety, comfort, convenience of car drivers has been the number one value for the better part of a century now. That’s the reason for the sprawling, congested mess cities currently find themselves in. If we don’t take the opportunity this new technology offers us to challenge and change that single-minded approach to urban mobility, it will hardly matter who or what is behind the wheel. The future on our roads won’t look a whole lot different than the present.

skeptically submitted by Cityslikr


Letting Go The Wheel

July 4, 2016

I spent the better part of 5 hours this holiday weekend behind the wheel of a Dodge Journey, apparently the auto aficionado’s choice of SUV or… dodgejourneyminivan or whatever thing this thing is called. How would I know the vehicle’s desirability? As soon as I returned it to the rental counter, it was summoned away to be washed and sent back out immediately upon request from another customer.

I did not sign up for a Dodge Journey, nor any other SUV or minivan. With just the 3 of us heading out of town for a couple days, figured a 4-door intermediate sized car would do the trick. But when I arrived at the rental place, there wasn’t a car on the lot. Just everything on steroids. My request for the smallest one they had delivered up the Journey. Yeah, the Journey. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to park it in our tiny garage. (Spoiler alert: Mission Accomplished, with room to spare.)

Once out on the highway, the Dodge Journey drove like in a car commercial. If you closed your eyes and pretended all those other cars weren’t there. dodgejourney1Only, not for too long. That’s kind of dangerous driving.

Seats as comfortable as any in my living room. Sound system better than mine at home. A/C keeping us cool on demand. Plenty of room for all the stuff we’ve packed in to make a summer long weekend complete.

Eventually, when traffic did thin out, after a couple hours, the Dodge Journey hit 140, 145 without me even really noticing. This, as the ad man’s copy reads, was a smooth ride. Enjoyable even, to a man who, at the best of times, hates being in a car.

It all got me to thinking about the not-too-distant future when we’d be handing over the task of driving fully to computers. Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars and the like.openroad1

The visuals we’re presented, Jetson’s style, are tiny pods, moving us around efficiently, not careening here and there, zipping back and forth, but almost assembly line like. Everyone travelling in orderly fashion at the same speed, a speed conducive, one would assume, to street life. So, not at crazy breakneck speeds.

Even out on the highways where the private automobile and trucking of goods rule, at what speed will our self-driving cars be allowed to haul it? Around these parts with a posted speed limit of 100 km/h but in practice, more like 120 before anyone really starts to notice, how fast will be deemed too fast? Eliminating driver error through computer control would, presumably, notch it up somewhat. What number will be practical, feasible or desirable?

A bigger question might be: will drivers who are used to determining their driving speed for themselves, within the constraints of using our streets with fellow travellers, of course, be willing to hand over the controls to the machine? Are we really going to be content to stick with the posted limits along with everyone else? selfdrivingcarsIsn’t the appeal (at least theoretically) of driving yourself the individualism to it? We’ve known almost since the private vehicle made its first appearance that speed kills yet we’ve proven ourselves unwilling to regulate their speed in any short of resolute way outside of road sign limits. Why are we still allowing cars on our streets and roads that are capable of going well over 300km/h, and building the infrastructure to accommodate such speeds?

Are we really to believe that with the advent of autonomous vehicles, we’re simply going to take our collective foot off the gas? Not to mention, give up the luxury something like the Dodge Journey offers up now for the confined space of the prototypical self-driving car that we’re seeing on the news reels. I have my doubts. Being in traffic is being in traffic whether you’re driving or not. selfdrivingcars1It’s hard to imagine giving up all the mod cons that we’ve become accustomed to if we’re still spending an inordinate amount of time in our cars in return for someonething else assuming control of the wheel.

Our relationship with our cars has never been that kind of rational. You could argue that car dependence and the building of our environment for the primacy of private automobile use is the very definition of irrational. Yet the assumption now seems to be technology will bring a sense of order, logic and reason to our road use. The machines will save us!

Only if they rewire our thinking about how we move around our cities and places, changing our priorities, will they. Because if the easiest, most reliable and comfortable way to get to where you want to go is still from inside a car, nothing much is going to change. selfdrivingcars2Fewer collisions and fatalities, which is not to be sniffed at, but cars first, cars foremost.

Unless, of course there are none remaining in the lot. Then we’ll all be moving around in Dodge Journeys. Riding in extreme comfort but still stuck in traffic despite the machine’s best efforts.

semi-autonomously submitted by Cityslikr