I’m a big fan of putting as many self-driving cars on the road that we can, right now, with one catch: There should always be a human driver in each of them.
That might sound counter-productive, but it’s not for a lot of reasons.
For one, it may be decades before the cellular and wireless infrastructure around the world is good enough for the self-driving cars to rely on. No cell signal means no self-navigation or impaired self-navigation. Neither are good for a passenger’s safety.
For another, I’m not convinced we’re going to get over the ick factor which keeps people from getting into a driverless vehicle. More than half of all Americans, as of 2017 anyway, say they won’t get into a driverless car if the opportunity presented itself.
And finally, the infrastructure we have now is falling apart. Now factor in that a lot of cities like Miami, New Orleans, and Norfolk needs to be radically altered to deal with rising sea levels, and the issue of America’s crumbling infrastructure becomes migraine inducing. Not only do we have to fix everything we have, we also have to either mass relocate people or spend billions (trillions?) on trying to prepare these cities for the rising waters.
This is even worse news for driverless vehicles.
That’s because Self-driving cars are dependent on our infrastructure remaining stable because they’re programmed to navigate that stable infrastructure.
One thing to remember: Regardless of how fast or how smart it may processes data, the machine only knows what it knows.
Even if the machine does learn new tricks over time, it’s not exactly keeping an eye out for a sudden storm surge.
This might not be a fair example, but Google Assistant / Google Maps tells me every morning how long my commute is to Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street.
When some asshole tried to set off a bomb in the basement of Port Authority (where the Subway is) and the building had to be shut down, Google Maps and Google Assistant said nothing. They may have indicated an increase in traffic around the Lincoln Tunnel, but nothing to suggest there was a potentially life-threatening incident that you needed to immediately avoid.
The machine knows what it knows. It knows traffic, but it doesn’t know the random shit any of us encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Your self-driving car needs to be able to update its navigation system in real time EXACTLY for this reason. Otherwise, it’ll bring you into a dangerous situation, if it even makes it there at all with its system impaired.
Leaving all that stuff aside, self-driving cars have to deal with the trolley problem.
Hopefully not with the same hilarious results Chidi faced on The Good Place, but still, the driverless car will be faced with the same dilemma.
Who does it kill and who does it protect? If the navigation is down because of bad infrastructure, the answer is “LOL, probably everyone” but you see how much more comfortable things would be with a human co-pilot?
Humans: Robot’s Best Friend
I know there’s some talk of companies like GM setting up a command and control center, run by humans, that can take over your driverless vehicle in the event of an emergency, but I think the fastest and best alternative is to just leave the driver alone and have them join you on the ride.
One thing you have to keep in mind with driverless cars is that if Waymo/Google, Uber, GM, Nvidia, NuTonomy, and Lyft put out a press release then, we tend to run what these companies say without questioning what they’re saying.
Some outlets are better than others about this, but we didn’t get the behemoths of Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple through magic and wishes.
They became household names in large part because many media outlets and writers heaped nothing but praise and love on these companies for a decade or longer. And none of these companies want humans in their self-driving cars because they have to pay them.
They’ll tell you “it doesn’t scale” to have human drivers and that regulation forcing them to have humans restricts their “innovation,” but these are flat out lies that have been told ad nauseam since the ‘90s. They’re rarely proven true.
So, we can’t let these companies and some bad media outlets shape the future for us and sell us on this world where every vehicle is autonomous.
As a species, we tend to be reactionary, not forward thinking. Meaning our infrastructure is going to get worse until we have to do something about it, and nobody is going to improve the wireless and cellular infrastructure because they don’t want to spend any money on anything anymore.
This is especially annoying where the government is concerned because the government really only exists to protect people, and it refuses to spend money on anything until it’s too late, it almost makes you wonder what the fuck the point is of having a government in the first place.
This is a long way of saying that we should push to keep humans in self-driving vehicles. Even if their presence is more for marketing purposes (“Hello fellow humans, this vehicle is perfectly safe because I’m riding around in it all day”) and for emergency intervention (like when the system goes down or there’s bad Internet and cellular connections preventing the cars from working properly.)
I don’t see how this is a bad thing for anyone except these companies because they’ll have to pay people instead of advocating the government pay them through something like a universal basic income.
Looking at the way our government currently operates, do you really expect there to be a universal basic income program? We’re lucky if Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security continue to exist in the next few years. I just don’t see it happening, and that’s scary when you consider how many people may be without a job because of automation in the next two decades.
Speaking of jobs …
As far as the driver is concerned, they’re getting paid. It’s a job.
I’m convinced we’ll go back to a world where we only work 19 hours a week thanks to automation, so there is a silver-lining, but the downside is that actual jobs may be more scarce than we like to think.
So you might find that “driving” one of these driverless cars is more than just a job. People may just do it for fun. For leisure. For human interaction. Maybe, like flight crews, the driver is on their way to another city and is just hitching a ride themselves.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, that’s what jobs of the future will look like. It’s something you’d actually enjoy doing with the added bonus of getting paid to do it.
Maybe not, but no matter what I think, don’t buy into this utopian hype driven by the tech companies and some of their friends in the news who think we’re doing the driver a favor by pushing for a completely autonomous vehicle to get us where we need to go.
As it stands, and in all of our lifetimes, there’s no guarantee the driverless vehicle can even do the job on its own.
Photo Credit: Pixabay/bobtheskater