Friday, March 20, 2015

Driverless Cars (i.e. Trusting Those Cold, Dodgy Algorithms)

Driverless cars are viewed by most knowledgable parties as inevitable - sooner rather than later. This leaves me, with my lingering skepticism, feeling out of touch. Our post-Google society has a deeply engrained trust for algorithms, but I just don't see it, myself.

Driving is subtle, and the subtleties can't be baked into an algorithm. An automated car could get from point A to point B under normal circumstances, but what about the unexpected? What about that tipsy, swerving driver up ahead? I'd surely spot him - and evade him - more effectively than the algorithm. A pile-up a quarter mile ahead would appear to the system as a number of stationary objects, and that's not much data. A person can factor in psychology - e.g. a keen awareness of the inattentive driver behind you (would an auto-pilot know to flash its brakes to grab his attention, or to stop a bit short and carefully parcel out extra braking room while gauging his reaction, or to wave an arm out the window as a last-ditch means of drawing attention?). Reducing this all to a calculation weighing Stationary Object A against Moving Object B forfeits the awareness and resourcefulness humans can uniquely muster.

On the other hand, how intuitive and resourceful is the average driver? It could be argued that most are no wiser than canned computer code - and far less alert and reactive. True defensive driving - accounting for shortcomings and cannily evading problems via instinct and intuition - isn't common. So a driverless car might indeed be safer than the average day-dreaming, hapless human pilot. Computers may be idiots, but at least they're efficient and rational.

But where does that leave above-average drivers, who'd take a step down by ceding control? Well, if all cars were self-driving, and efficiently connected, that would be irresistible. As-is, every incompetent fool you've ever met is empowered to wail down highways in a two-ton bomb of glass and metal - an insanity that will make future historians shudder. So as long as even a few cars are still under human control, I wouldn't imagine handing control over to computer code. And I won't be the only one feeling this way, so a Mexican stand-off scenario would ensue among the hold-outs. No good driver will want to be the second-to-last to yield control while even one asshole still operates a vehicle.

Some worry about being legislated into conformity. Elon Musk tweeted the other day that "when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter." But it would be politically unfeasible to ban people from driving their vehicles. We may eventually be unable to buy human-driven cars, but I doubt we'll be prohibited from operating one.

Safety issues aside, there's something no one's discussing. Wouldn't you feel like a putz sitting frozen in a typical car seat with nothing to do and no option for roaming around and pursuing other activities? A trip in a driverless car would feel like the chintziest public transportation experience imaginable. On trains or buses, there's space to fidget, interact, and do stuff, but sitting idle in a small tin can with your attention riveted forward toward the roadway would hardly be a pleasant prospect. If public transportation systems had been continuously refined over the past half century, the demise of driving would surely have meant the end of cars. But it seems inevitable that cars - which are for driving, period - will morph into something more like buses, daft though that progression would be.

I feel similarly out of touch re: Amazon's scheme to deliver packages via drones. Like many others, I chortled at the prospect of limb (and power line) severing lawnmowers plying public airspaces. But it looks like even this may come to pass, after all.

It may just be a generational thing. Some of us will remain skeptical of algorithms, but perhaps we sound like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy, bewailing the perils of having ones molecules scrambled by that damned transporter contraption....

No comments:

Blog Archive