Look Ma, No Hands

The advent of driverless cars.

The driverless car is one of those ideas that was obvious long before it was feasible. As soon as Marconi had demonstrated radio transmission of sound, televisions and videophones were on the agenda. Engineers toyed with driverless cars in the 1920s, with no success; the scheme requires massive cheap computation, which has only become available in the last decade.

SF robot carI looked for an SF magazine cover with transport pods from the 1930s. In vain: the problem is not that writers hadn’t thought of it, it’s that it’s not sexy, in the white girl/BEM/blaster convention of the genre. The best I could find was this alarming robot enforcer from 1935. Contrast today’s unthreatening prototypes.






We don’t get the technical progress we need, but what comes easiest. Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s? They will be in the post, some day soon. Multi-player role-playing video games, that we never missed before they showed up: step this way. Sometimes need and feasibility coincide, as with the smartphone: the prototype of the universal communicator terminal of science fiction, and a social revolution. Are driverless cars more like video games or smartphones?

First, the timescale. Google is only the best-known of the companies that have put driverless cars on the public road: 23 converted Lexus SUVs around San Francisco, as of today. They call them “self-driving cars”: the human backup will disappear eventually with full driverless automation. Google plan to put a self-driving car on the market in 2020, which looks a reasonable timing. They seem quite serious about it.

Google and its rivals seem to have abandoned one possible approach to driverless cars: centralising the intelligence. It has proved extremely difficult to write robust and comprehensive air traffic and train signalling software, which have to deal with a tiny fraction of the numbers of cars moving round a city. So this rejection looks sensible. They have decided to put all the intelligence in the car, with no contribution from the roadway. This requires a very fine-grained and accurate map, and a very expensive radar ($70,000). One problem not yet solved is dealing with situations not in the map: a police signal by an accident, say.

My pennyworth: put some low-level intelligence in the environment. With really cheap $5 IoT sensor chips with radio, you can scatter the mental equivalent of cicadas by the thousand along the roads. Each robot cicada wouldn’t stridulate much: “Hello world! This is Berkeley lamp-post 4843 on Main Street! It’s dark! I am switched on! … Hello world! …” Surely it would be easier for a car to navigate through a helpful chorus of low-level information of this sort, coupled of course to the map, rather than insisting on working everything out by itself, like a fallible human driver. The police stop would be part of the same system, but with a peremptory override: “Hello world! This is Berkeley police cruiser 57, temporarily at 420 Vine for an accident scene. All vehicles travelling westward on Vine are required to clear the inmost lane and keep to a 20 mph speed limit for the block. … Hello world! …”

It looks a good bet that the technology will be solved in the next decade. Mass adoption depends on the price. The $70,000 radar is a real snag, and it’s an analogue, power-hungry device. Perhaps my chorus of cicadas will come to the rescue. It is possible that driverless cars will remain a curiosity, toys for the rich like commuting helicopters, which have been inaccessibly feasible for 50 years. It is also possible that they will take over. It is not too early to start thinking about the consequences if they do.

These will be very positive.

32,719 people died in traffic accidents in the USA in 2013. The WHO estimate the world total of traffic deaths at 1.24 million in 2010. The injury toll is an order of magnitude higher. The EU Commission:

For every death on Europe’s roads there are an estimated 4 permanently disabling injuries such as damage to the brain or spinal cord, 8 serious injuries and 50 minor injuries.

These are very large numbers. Contrast reported civilian plane crashes, responsible for 1,088 deaths worldwide in 2014, a bad year. The motor car driven by humans is not safe.

A driverless car will certainly be much safer. In 1 million miles of road operation, Google’s cars have been involved in 12 very minor accidents, none of them (they say) due to failure of the automation. Production vehicles will be at least as good. Driverless cars cannot get drunk, take drugs, fall asleep, get into conflicts with other drivers, answer their mobile phones at complex freeway junctions or engage in heated arguments witMIng-middletonh fractious children in the back seat. There is a small risk of electronic failure, but car- and chip-makers now know how to design onboard computers for ruggedness. Cyberwarfare? Ming the Merciless could hack into the city police override computer, and steer the passengers trapped in their pods to slavery in his uranium mines, except for the D-cup young women who would go straight to his harem. Maybe. However, Ming could have a go today at the systems responsible today for air traffic control, the electricity grid or the Internet backbone, and he hasn’t seized them yet.

Excluded groups
Car drivership cannot be universal. It is limited to able-bodied adults. The very old, children, and many people with disabilities or chronic illness have to rely on somebody else to drive them where they want to go. By my heroic guesswork, that’s around a third of the population (footnote). You may say: they can use taxis today. But taxi regulations were designed for horse-drawn vehicles, and taxis are often kept expensive through restrictive licensing (to limit the volume of horse manure, perhaps?). See Mark’s findings on the gains from Uber. Assuming driverless cars replace driven ones at similar cost, that would expand and equalize access to mobility.

Lower numbers from rental
The third gain is more speculative. Driverless car boosters suggest that the vehicles would not typically be owned by individuals but by rental fleets. Fleets can get very much higher usage from vehicles, so you need fewer of them: 30%, according to Stanford computer scientist and former Google project leader Sebastian Thrun.  He’s conservative; drawing on experience with car-sharing pools, other studies for Lisbon and Austin suggest up to 90% fewer vehicles, on paper. The change translates to lower costs per trip, since the capital cost is independent of usage.

There is no reason to think traffic would go down: probably the reverse, through the access effect. The problem of congestion, and the political difficulty of solving it by congestion charging, would remain intact. However, you would get an enormous reduction in the total number of vehicles, and the need for parking spaces, which tie up a lot of valuable city-centre real estate.

The effect on climate change would be positive, though not huge. The heavy lifting is done here by the shift to electric traction, not automation. But fewer cars require less in the way of steel, plastics and batteries. It also means that the transition could go much quicker – you might only need to replace one in three of the world ICE car fleet, 258 million not 773 million. That’s 3½ year’s annual production of cars, not 9½ years. The trucks and buses are used much more intensively and you would not get much of a reduction from a parallel switch.

Is this scenario plausible? People are very attached to their cars – though less than formerly. My parents gave names to their cars, like their pets; I never have. But to me the boosters look to me to have the

Emperor on horseback, by Titian
Emperor on horseback, by Titian

psychology right. The motor car seamlessly replaced the horse as a symbol of status and masculinity. Learning to drive is gaining mastery (sic) over a powerful, exciting and potentially dangerous machine, formerly animal. In Rio de Janeiro, I’m struck by the absurd priority given by the city fathers to drivers over pedestrians as users of the public highway: an atavistic survival of the feudal priority of the seigneur on his horse over the peasant on foot.

Driverless cars completely break this psychosocial complex. The car or pod will become a mere convenience, with no more affective importance than a dishwasher or TV. By design or regulation, they will all travel at the same speed, and choose their optimal route without human intervention. There will be few mental barriers to switching to rental if it’s cheaper and more practical. City ordinances will steadily make life harder for the holdouts who insist on driving their own car, especially an ICE one. Life got difficult for horse-drawn vehicles in American towns in the 1920s.

Footnote: Guesstimate of the UK population excluded from driving
UK 2014, official data:
Total population  64.51 m
Age 8-16                   6.47 m (10.0%)
Age 75+                  10.68 m (16.6%)
Total number disabled persons :   11 m
Remove double counting: all disabled children (6% prevalence of disability: 0.39 m 0.77 m) and disabled old people (45% prevalence: 2.35 m), and you get a total excluded population of 19.95 19.05 million or 30.9% 29.53%. [Corrected to remove the disabled children 0-8 from the disabled total as well as 8-16]

This is very rough of course. A good number of 80-year-olds and disabled people are fit to drive. On the other hand not every teenager gets a driving licence at 17, and I’ve left out illness, fear, dislike and test failure as additional obstacles to driving.

* * * *

Thanks to Keith for pointing me at this.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Look Ma, No Hands”

  1. I think self-driving cars are coming, and they spell doom for trains. To that extent, they might not be better for the energy transition, depending on what they run on. If they have smaller hybrid or all-electric engines, they are welcome. Anyone who can afford a chauffeur has one. Most people don't actually want cars, but freedom. If people can get where they want while surfing and chatting on devices, they will not miss driving. Smartphones killed car nicknames.

    1. Challenge. My own experience suggests that car nicknames died long before. For young people who grew up with cars, they are just a normal and unromantic part of adult life. I suspect that the very American association with sexual freedom has also faded (if you have ever tried to make love in a European compact car with a stick shift, you will understand why I say "American"). Parents today are more accepting of teenage sexuality, and prefer that their daughters especially engage in their experimentation in the safe environment of home.

      BTW, have the military stopped giving names to warplanes and tanks? If so, when?

      "Doom for trains": why? As I noted, driverless vehicles don't help the traffic problem one whit. The advantage of trains (and buses) is density.

      1. Upper middle class parents who aren't specifically religious, maybe, but an awful lot of parents want their daughters to have sex for the first time on their wedding night. A car makes noncompliance with this wish, regardless of how you feel about it (I'm not a fan of delaying sexual experimentation) a lot easier.

  2. James, you left out a few realities of the situation regarding "Lower numbers from rental." People may not give their cars names as much, but they do "personalize" them in other ways, making me think that most people will choose to own. They are the repositories of fast food containers, of papers and files, of shopping, of golf clubs, etc. It may be that there are fewer two-car families, however, since commuting may be accomplished by self-driving Uber vehicles.

  3. My best guess is that the first large scale use for driverless cars will be taxi systems in populated areas, for which the pods at Heathrow are a prototype; both sides in the Uber-v.-traditional taxi wars need to watch their flanks. If driverless taxi fleets thrive, they will indeed begin to produce the benefits described. Once established, driverless cars will expand in numbers and range of use , but there will be at a minimum a very long overlap with driven cars . Today's personally-owned cars have shortcomings, but also an astonishing degree of flexibility and versatility. Those characteristics are especially valuable in less populated areas. That technology will simultaneously fade and evolve, but it will be around long after driverless cars become commonplace.

    1. There will likely be self-driving after market kits for car owners who are willing to go to the expense of converting their cars to self-driving.

      1. A complication there is that police will need to know whether the car is being driven by a human or not, and it’d have to be pretty unfakable – for example the car would produce a detailed self-driving log for the previous few minutes when requested.

  4. Very good post James. What is your guess as to the fate of all the residential space devoted to cars — parking places, garages etc. Will this be removed and turn green or will homes get even bigger, using more energy. Ditto massive parking lots at stadiums and malls and the like — they will not be needed because the cars will be on the road almost all the time. What happens to that land and that pavement, would you guess?

    1. Do you need to ask? Junk will metastasize to fill the empty garages. Fast-food outlets will metastasize to fill the empty car parks. Capitalism,, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

      To the extent that subsidised parking has fuelled American exurban sprawl, a shift to driverless rentals should lead over time to denser and less wasteful urban patterns. I really can't see a downside to the change, except in the loss of fragile self-esteem to Pickup Man.

      1. With respect, I think you've got it a bit wrong. Pickup Man has normal self-esteem and helps his friends when they move. It is SUV man who has issues. They should never have been allowed on the road.

        "Less wasteful." I haven't bought into that yet, though I do agree we need clean transport. Greenery and setbacks and single family housing and cute little courtyard apartments… that's what many people want, and they are not wrong to want it. You didn't say any of that yourself, but please be aware that many of these New Urbanists hate greenery and beauty of all kinds — though naturally, they do not phrase it that way. They laud "walkability," but it turns out, they want to walk as little as possible!!! (Therefore all setbacks are the divvil.) And to make it all as ugly as possible. All on the supposed eco superiority of it. I don't buy it for a minute. And I hope you won't drink that Koolaid either. I don't think it's necessary.

    1. SF pulp coverA tribute to the artists of the old pulp magazine covers. The girl is always white, 95% helpless, and to my inexpert eye, typically D-cup. Not being Caravaggios, the artists found it too difficult to work the girl, the BEM and the rock-jawed hero into the limited real estate together. They always kept the girl.

  5. Again, I think you are wildly optimistic. There are a lot of problems remaining with driverless cars that we aren't that close to solving, like spotting potholes and finding parking spaces. We'd also need to map not only all of the roads, but all of the driveways you want to park in.

    There is also the problem that as soon as you solve the problem of needing to update the maps constantly* by having new obstacles broadcast their presence, you're going to have to solve the problem of people hacking into those broadcasts.

    *And constantly means more often than daily and even more often than hourly.

    1. I suspect that adverse weather; rain, snow, fog, etc.; might prove to be one of the "close, but no cigar" problems. At least, in the near term.

    2. This is why they will first be used as taxis. They can be programmed for a finite set of roads and pickup/dropoff points, which will expand as the technology develops.

  6. You don't say anything about regulatory barriers, but perhaps that's on purpose. Maybe you think the driverless cars are really inevitable.

    I'm a bit more worried. The technology is still so far from market, and requires so much capital investment that a few uncooperative regulatory authorities could really make a mess of things.

    In particular, I worry that regulation designed to ease a transition will end up limiting the promise of the self-driving car by creating path dependence. They might, for instance, mandate that all self-driving cars include a wheel and pedals for manual override and require the car to turn over control of the car at certain times, like when an emergency vehicle is present. And I suspect that the only thing more dangerous than a human behind the wheel is a human who is out of the habit of driving and was likely distracted until a moment ago being thrust into the driver's seat (as it were). A few dramatic accidents involving hybrid human-automated cars might be enough to convince a skeptical government against the whole project. And given the high capital investment and small number of developers, the timing of such a potential backlash could be fatal.

    But please, by all means dispel my worries! I want a safer future in which I don't have to drive.

    1. Good points. Fusspot local governments could certainly make life difficult. It's a good thing that driverless cars are not being developed by visionaries in garages but by large and ruthless corporations, led by Google, with deep lobbying experience and plenty of money. Google have already secured favourable regulations in Nevada. In the current research phase, the developers don't need more than a few supportive cities. They can always buy more later. Ming isn't really the opposition, he's running the show.

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