One area of autonomous Vehicle research much noted over the past two months is their proving facilities. The country’s second-largest automaker returned to the self-driving headlines therein with “Ford invests in Michigan’s autonomous Car testing grounds” (Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget, September 15), showing that it will likely not be behind General Motors in this next huge phase, and that the state of Michigan, for similar reasons, will also make a comeback.
Another thread in this area has been consumer reactions. In Salon’s September 16th “Lots of love for driverless cars, just not from drivers,” Paul Feldman recapped survey results showing “that most motorists don’t want to drive, ride in or be on the road anywhere near” autonomous vehicles. With their current technology that is appropriate, and indeed it is not even possible yet for ordinary people to use them outside of a few free-ride programs. With reporters seeing firsthand and later publicizing how well such cars fared with impediments last month, that confidence level has since improved and will continue to rise.
One more driverless domain has been the completed and expected
implementation of their ever-improving features in meatmobiles. As Lee Vinsel put it in the September 23rd“The best parts about autonomous vehicles are already here,” also in Salon, “elements of self-driving car systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings and head-on collision-avoidance systems, could reduce road deaths by up to one-third.” That would be over 11,000 in the United States alone, without any benefit from the vehicles for which these technologies are eventually intended. This article also included the historical insight that the federal National Research Council “became interested in a self-driving car” in 1953, and that Vladimir Zworykin, often credited as the inventor of television, was doing much of the research.
“Could You Form an Emotional Bond With a Self-Driving Car?” My response to Doug Newcomb’s September 23rdPC Magazinearticle is, well, maybe, but nowhere near as much as when such connections, probably in the 1950s or 1960s, reached their peaks. Personal intensity about vehicles has been falling ever since then, is either a cause or an effect of the drop of young people getting driver’s licenses over the past decade or two, and, as interesting as these ideas are, won’t be reversed by synchronizing music with driving speed or installing “a “hunger undulator” that uses vibrating motors to mimic stomach contractions so passengers feel hungry as the car starts to get low on fuel.” True, people can get attached to machines, from Star Wars droids to copiers, but it’s hard to see how that will reach its former strength.
Back to the business side, with “Ford and Lyft Sign Driverless-Car Agreement” (Greg Bensinger, The Wall Street Journal, September 27th). Here’s where Lyft, now more respected, could become larger than Uber, as it has also been working with General Motors. The latter company may or may not be getting anywhere in the area itself, per “GM making ‘rapid progress’ toward self-driving car development: executive” (Reuters, October 3), a piece which, based on GM press releases, offered no real specifics.
Some retirement-oriented places, in particular Sun City West in Arizona, have allowed golf courts on streets for decades now. Daisuke Wakabayashi, in The New York Times’s October 4th “Where Driverless Cars Brake for Golf Carts” describes how the Villages Golf and Country Club in San Jose has made its vehicle mix even more diverse, with 15 miles of roads, a 25 MPH speed limit, and a private-property status making it “an ideal proving ground.” Community management sought a lower-cost way of providing shuttle services, found that residents actively wanted driverless cars, and connected with Udacity, which is now there testing automated vehicles of some sort. This Villages implementation may go down as the first time driverless technology was sought out, and succeeded, to save money.
On the regulatory side, the Associated Press reported in Fox Business on October 4ththat “Senators weigh bill to remove obstacles to self-driving cars.” We’ve seen the controversy behind regulatory issues before, and it’s the same here, with one side citing a potential end to 94% of car accidents and the other, expressed by a onetime leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying that “the public will be the crash dummies in this experiment.” Both sides need to be heard, but I am confident that, as technology and familiarity both improve, the anti-autonomous faction will become smaller and more of a fringe.
One odd characteristic of driverless vehicles of all kinds is that, opposite to those human-operated, they are less dangerous when more of them are on the road. In Engadget’s October 4th“Networked self-driving cars are smarter and safer,” Daniel Cooper explained why. “Two cars in convoy” perforce occupy different spaces with different fields of vision, so if they can combine what they see it will be more than from only one. That’s progress, as is the subject of the same date’s “General Motors Just Made a Lot More Self-Driving Cars” (Reuters). Though “a lot” is only 100, and though as before we get few hard facts about GM’s work, it’s still movement in the right direction.
Clearly, the headline of Srikanth Saripalli’s October 8thSalon piece “Are self-driving cars the future of mobility for disabled people?” deserves a three-letter answer. And the same is true for drinkers. The article correctly points out that there will be logistical issues to resolve, such as “identifying curb cuts that let wheelchairs and walkers pass easily as well as noting potential obstacles, like trash cans out for collection,” but, indeed, driverless vehicles “have the potential to change neighborhoods and individuals’ lives – including people who are disabled and often both literally and figuratively left behind.” That should serve as an offset to those pessimistic about safety.
We wrap up this week with a heady philosophical issue, in “The Breakthrough We Need for Self-Driving Cars to Become a Reality” (Lily Elefteriadou, Popular Mechanics, also October 8th). We need not care about the main point of the article, which is publicizing the University of Florida’s good but elsewhere-duplicated research, but is it true that “no consumer wants to buy a self-driving car that’s programmed, even in the most remote of circumstances, to kill its (occupant)”? Either fortunately or unfortunately, when algorithms are developed to make life-or-death decisions when only destructive actions are possible, it may be the law for automated vehicles to crash instead of hitting a crowd of pedestrians. That would be an intriguing premise for a science-fiction story, with, as so many have, real-life application, involving illicit reprogramming counterhacked by federal forces. Yet it is nonfiction that the cars themselves are on the way.
More to follow next week.