Monday, June 27, 2016

Autonomous Cars in Urban Spaces

Last week the Times rehashed the hoary topic of autonomous vehicle morality in an article titled "Should Your Driverless Car Hit a Pedestrian to Save Your Life?". Obviously, these issues will be determined by legislation, not by scientists at auto companies. As with every transformational technology, a scheme of compromises will be worked out. This is something human beings are good at. It's more interesting to speculate on the fallout. And here's what I don't get:

Urban intersections create uneasy standoffs between brazen pedestrians and possibly homicidal motorists. The threat of grievous bodily harm is the only thing keeping pedestrians off streets during vehicular right-of-way. If any idiot jumping into slow-moving traffic has the power to stop everything, how will idiots not be constantly jumping into slow-moving traffic to stop everything? Worse, wouldn't every yahoo have the power to cause monstrous pile-on collisions, by forcing the front-running car to jam on its breaks? Wouldn't pushing something in front of you (e.g. an empty baby carriage) make you The God of All Traffic at no personal risk?

The only reason cars can move at all in urban spaces is pedestrian fear and uncertainty - i.e. they're never sure a given driver will stop for them. Removing this uncertainty tilts the balance of power, resulting in traffic paralysis at best and multiple crashes at worst (as the robots exercise all due caution in protecting life and limb).

Driverless Cars (i.e. Trusting Those Cold, Dodgy Algorithms): My initial luddite ravings from early 2015

One Cool Prospect With Autonomous Cars: Utopian musings from earlier this year (plus a couple excellent links).


fbj said...


In 10 years it will be illegal for a human to drive a car in the US. I am 110% certain of this.

oddly, it might be the insurance companies that drive this change. Any way it happens, it's sad that Rush's "Red Barchetta" will come to be seen as the defining work of our era.


Jim Leff said...

I'm 111% certain it won't.

Would you want to be the politician who tells tens of millions of Americans they can no longer operate their lawfully purchased vehicles? It would be political suicide.

At some point the old cars will largely be gone, and most cars will be automated. And that will be the tipping point.

But you didn't answer my question: how would pedestrians not be utter traffic gods in urban settings? How would cars move through intersections with the uncertainty re: vehicular homicide removed?

fbj said...

I'm far more dystopian in my outlook than you. Political suicide? What politician cares what people think?

There will be huge campaigns screaming SAFETY!!!! Aren't you the person who described certain political issues as AIRHORNS? Meaning that blowing the AIRHORN destroys thought and debate. Words like Terrorism or Ki__ie_P__n, or pe____philes?

To answer your question, when driverless cars are the rule, I am sure pedestrians will be totally regulated. Any pedestrian who disobeys a traffic signal will be subject to draconian prosecution for interfering with the lawful flow of traffic. After a week of this, people will learn the rules.

I live in Los Angeles, and have been issued a jaywalking ticket at 10:30 on a Monday night, crossing a one-way street, after I waited for the ONLY VEHICLE IN SIGHT FOR 1/4 MILE IN BOTH DIRECTIONS to go through the intersection. Turns out that was an unmarked cruiser, who screeched to a stop and drove up on the curb to block my progress on the sidewalk, cops came out with weapons drawn and forced me to the ground. I am WHITE. This was in Little Tokyo.

Driverless cars and cameras are another way to control the population. I am not optomistic.

I apologize for any typos -- I'm not unhinged, but the blogger software seems to be fighting my browser.

I appreciate your voice, friend, and love to hear/read your site.


Jim Leff said...

"Any pedestrian who disobeys a traffic signal will be subject to draconian prosecution for interfering with the lawful flow of traffic."

They'll certainly try, but enforcement is a problem. Unlike cars, people don't wear license plates, so it's not as if police cameras can fill in.

Even compared to massive illegal activity like drug use or speeding, the sheer numbers of likely scofflaws (and the ability of each one of them to cause accidents, as cars will necessarily have to take extremes not to hit them - or their shopping cart of rolling luggage or whatever) will be unprecedented. We'd need to quintuple police presence in urban areas to make even a small dent.

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