Thursday, June 26, 2014

What, Me Trust Technology?

Eleanor Holmes Norton ‘kills’ driverless car
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was invited Tuesday, along with fellow members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to test drive — er, test ride — a driverless car on the Capitol grounds.

Well, the ride never happened, because Norton did a particularly good job of testing the car’s bright-red “kill” button — which, as captured by WRC-TV’s cameras, killed the car to the point that it could not proceed with the test ride.
There's some dispute over whether she should have pushed the button or not. Apparently pushing the button stopped the test completely, rather than simply pausing. Now, in my opinion, any time you have a large red "IN CASE OF EMERGENCY" type button, you'd best be ready for it to be pressed, and to react accordingly once that happens.

Now, here's where, once again, journalism fails. No one got a quote from Norton as to why she stopped the test ride. It would be instructive to know her reasoning for aborting the test ride, seemingly before it even got rolling in traffic. Of course, there's the danger that the reason she hit the kill switch was exactly that - she didn't like the idea of a computer controlling her safety so completely.

I wonder how Del. Norton feels about "smart guns?"

I like the concept of so-called "smart" cars, I really do. Having a 20 mile commute that sometimes takes me an hour and a half, there's a lot more fun things I could be doing besides gas-brake-gas-honk. It'd be great to kick the car over to auto-pilot, recline the seat, and read a book. Or cruise Facebook. Or check my e-mail. Or any number of about a zillion things other than stare out the windshield hating humanity more and more.

The problem is, it's exactly that seething mass of humanity that will prevent me from ever getting a computer-controlled car. 

The only way that a computer-controlled car is even remotely feasible is if we take *every* human-controlled car off the road. All of them. I'm picturing my morning commute scenario - imagine 95% "smart" cars, with 5% of "dumb" cars intermixed. Imagine the same mouth-breathers that cut out of the right lane into the merge lane to pass three cars, then dive back into line. Or the people you see swerving all over the lanes as they text their BFFs? Imagine the poor vehicular computer having a mechanized conniption fit as a human-car swerves wildly into the travel lane, as another human-car tailgates way too close.

What's the algorithm for deciding whether to avoid the lane-swerver at the expense of the tailgater? With the unknown of other human drivers on the road, there are too many questions that are brought up by a computer-controlled vehicle. Now, there's a few things that could mitigate this. One option, of course, is to phase in "smart" vehicles over a time period, with "dumb" cars eventually being relegated to "antique" status where they would no longer be road-worthy.

Next, and probably easiest, designate "smart car only" lanes. Much like the HOV lanes currently operate, you have one lane dedicated only to computer-operated cars. This one would be a cinch to operate, as only cars under computer navigation could even get in. Maybe even have access granted only to the computer navigation or something like that, with the cars in that lane having the "cut-off" disabled. You could literally have cars traveling at 100 MPH three feet apart and have it be perfectly safe. Each car in the lane could input their destination, and the traffic navigation system can time all exits and entrances accordingly.

This idea could, theoretically, revolutionize road travel. Speed limits would become mostly meaningless, with all cars controlled by computers with infinitely faster reaction times. You remove distracted and impaired driving entirely - imagine no more crashes because someone was texting, or too hammered to see straight. Traffic would greatly diminish, as accidents become less and less common. Speeds could increase - imagine being able to drive from Boston to DC in only 6 hours. One stop for gas (which would also be controlled by computers - and hey, wonder if we could even incorporate in-flight refueling...), and you could travel 500 miles in 6 hours easily.

Again, the single biggest obstacle to this is other people. Perhaps creating a separate series of lanes - you could probably streamline it into a single lane - for computer-controlled vehicles would be a start, and eventually once all human-controlled vehicles are phased out we could turn the entire interstate system into one big speedway. I'd certainly like being able to get to work in half an hour with no traffic and being able to read the morning news on the ride in.

And one last thing to think about - once we solve the problem of getting all cars controlled by computers, we can think about getting those cars into the third dimension...

That is all.


Anonymous said...

Maximum Overdrive.... jus sayin.

Also, I have no confidence that the meatbags in the car next to me or on coming isn't gonna do something stupid. Then there is the whole hacking thing where a-holes and tangoes could cause huge, deadly wrecks (because car makers are getting more and more like Microsoft and shoving untested and poorly secured crap on the public, what does this monster run? Windows 8?).

I don't trust it primarily because I have been IN the software development business for 25 years.

Joseph in IL

juvat said...

Joseph beat me to it. It is a cool concept though.

Dave H said...

These are the same reasons I don't think we'll ever have flying cars. People are clueless enough to be dangerous navigating in two dimensions. They'll be Death incarnate in three.

Stretch said...

100 mph.
3 feet apart.
System Crash.

I spent too many years installing and maintaining computers to trust my life to one

At least MOST people have an innate sense of self preservation.
Computers do not.

Geodkyt said...


3 feet apart.

Normal width lanes with either Jersey barriers or other, active, lanes flanking them. (After all, teh idea would be to make more efficient use of existing road surface, not less.)

Front tire blows out.

Computers aren't the only suystems that can catastrophically fail.

Phssthpok said...

"...we can think about getting those cars into the third dimension..."

8th dimension. Buckaroo Bonzai took his car across the 8th dimension. ;-)

cerberus65 said...

You're obviously not a programmer. I am. No way in hell am I trusting the driving to some piece of code - even if I wrote it.