Self Driving Cars

I’m a believer in self driving car technology, and predict it will have enormous effects, for example:

  1. Our cars currently spend most of the time doing nothing. They could be out making money for us as taxis while we are at work.
  2. How much infrastructure and frustration (home garage, driveways, car parks, finding a park) do we devote to cars that are standing still? We could park them a few km away in a “car hive” and arrange to have them turn up only when we need them.
  3. I can make interstate trips laying down sleeping or working.
  4. Electric cars can recharge themselves.
  5. It throws personal car ownership into question. I can just summon a car on my smart phone then send the thing away when I’m finished. No need for parking, central maintenance. If they are electric, and driverless, then very low running costs.
  6. It will decimate the major cause of accidental deaths, saving untold misery. Imagine if your car knew the GPS coordinates of every car within 1000m, even if outside of visual range, like around a corner. No more t-boning, or even car doors opening in the path of my bike.
  7. Speeding and traffic fines go away, which will present a revenue problem for governments like mine that depend on the statistical likelihood of people accidentally speeding.
  8. My red wine consumption can set impressive new records as the car can drive me home and pour me into bed.

I think the time will come when computers do a lot better than we can at driving. The record of these cars in the US is impressive. The record for humans in car accidents dismal (a leading case of death).

We already have driverless planes (autopilot, anti-collision radar, autoland), that do a pretty good job with up to 500 lives at a time.

I can see a time (say 20 years) when there will be penalties (like a large insurance excess) if a human is at the wheel during an accident. Meat bags like me really shouldn’t be in control of 1000kg of steel hurtling along at 60 km/hr. Incidentally that’s 144.5 kJ of kinetic energy. A 9mm bullet exits a pistol with 0.519 kJ of energy. No wonder cars hurt people.

However many people are concerned about “blue screens of death”. I recently had an email exchange on a mailing list, here are some key points for and against:

  1. The cars might be hacked. My response is that computers and micro-controllers have been in cars for 30 years. Hacking of safety critical systems (ABS or EFI or cruise control) is unheard of. However unlike a 1980’s EFI system, self driving cars will have operating systems and connectivity, so this does need to be addressed. The technology will (initially at least) be closed source, increasing the security risk. Here is a recent example of a modern car being hacked.
  2. Planes are not really “driverless”, they have controls and pilots present. My response is that long distance commercial aircraft are under autonomous control for the majority of their flying hours, even if manual controls are present. Given the large number of people on board an aircraft it is of course prudent to have manual control/pilot back up, even if rarely used.
  3. The drivers of planes are sometimes a weak link. As we saw last year and on Sep 11 2001, there are issues when a malicious pilot gains control. Human error is also behind a large number of airplane incidents, and most car accidents. It was noted that software has been behind some airplane accidents too – a fair point.
  4. Compared to aircraft the scale is much different for cars (billions rather than 1000s). The passenger payload is also very different (1.5 people in a car on average?), and the safety record of cars much much worse – it’s crying out for improvement via automation. So I think automation of cars will eventually be a public safety issue (like vaccinations) and controls will disappear.
  5. Insurance companies may refuse a claim if the car is driverless. My response is that insurance companies will look at the actuarial data as that’s how they make money. So far all of the accidents involving Google driverless cars have been caused by meat bags, not silicon.

I have put my money where my mouth is and invested in a modest amount of Google shares based on my belief in this technology. This is also an ethical buy for me. I’d rather have some involvement in an exciting future that saves lives and makes the a world a better place than invest in banks and mining companies which don’t.

5 thoughts on “Self Driving Cars”

  1. Hi All,

    Self driving cars are impressive and better than humans?

    Reminds me of the comment: It doesn’t matter who votes. It matters who COUNTS the votes.

    Is there any REAL unbiased data yet?

    NO!!!

    So, let them play. Just not on the highways near me!

    John

    1. The need for unbiased data is a good point, like national stats on self driving car safety, or independent verification of Google’s numbers.

  2. I think the PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) has potential provided investors grow the intestinal fortitude to invest in such systems.
    And if the supporters don’t get hung up on a narrow range of vehicle sizes, but allow for a reasonably wide range of vehicle sizes, e.g. from a small car to a FedEx or UPS delivery van.

  3. It’s worth considering the role the cloud plays in this… It is more likely that it will be one or two big cloud based programs driving all the cars at once. It will not just be a case of your car knowing where other cars are, it will be a case of a much bigger system controlling traffic flow. Also consider the privacy implications of this… I wonder how much sleep we will get in these cars or how much advertising we will have to view etc. Personally I’m hoping for a rolling hot tub!

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