Thursday, March 15, 2018

Three Seemingly Insurmountable Problems with Autonomous Cars

I love to drive, but am nonetheless looking forward to autonomous cars, which are due sooner than we expect. For one thing, I'll enjoy an unprecedentedly active old age. As I wrote a few months ago:
What if you could go to sleep in your camper or RV, and wake up 500 miles away? Achieving that without the least preparation or staging would ... feel one notch away from teleportation!

And once highways are 100% autonomous, speed limits could safely increase, so maybe you'd wake up 800 miles away! Just for one thing, it would be a chowhound's utopia: you might read about a great breakfast joint in Jacksonville, FL, and be there the next morning for pancakes...just like magic!

It's a pretty irresistible prospect. Especially if I'm 80 years old (it'd likely take that long to happen anyway), and otherwise not getting around very much.
But there are problems. Not just challenging problems, but seemingly insurmountable ones, and these are just the three I've thought of. All are most problematic in urban areas, but those are the locales where autonomous cars are expected to be most concentrated.

1. Pedestrian Tyranny

The prime commandment of any self-driving algorithm must be: don't hit humans. This tops all other priorities.

As is, an uneasy truce exists between motorist and pedestrian right of way, and it has little to do with signage (if we locked up all the jay-walkers, there'd be no one left free). The only reason pedestrians ever let cars pass through an intersection is the prospect of getting hit. A driver could be drunk, inattentive, or psychopathic, so it's not worth the risk.

But if cars are constrained from running you over, you can step off the curb nearly any time, and all traffic will politely allow your passage. They will even opt to rear-end each other in order to accommodate you. In fact, all you need to do is wave your arm or umbrella into the roadway. Screech.....bam....walk.

The only alternatives I can think of (1. make jay walking a felony and position police at every intersection, or 2. make every citizen wear or implant an identifying chip and position sensors at every intersection)- seem impractical to say the least.

2. Destination Overload

The great thing about autonomous cars is they remove the issue of parking. Your vehicle drops you at the door, then heads off to the outskirts to park cheaply and await your summons. It may be even easier than this. In the future foreseen by both GM and Uber, car ownership will be effectively over by the middle of the upcoming decade. With no humans needing to get paid, autonomous taxis will be irresistibly cheap, so we'll be using them for everything. In either case, people will no longer approach their destination on foot, having parked in one of the plethora of surrounding options or emerged from various mass transit. Most of us will be driven to the door every time.

So what happens in front of, say, a post office when ingress is no longer a mixture of mass transit, foot traffic, and a slim percentage of drop-offs? What would 44th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue look like at 7:15pm when nearly every theatergoer arrives by car directly to the door? What does midtown Manhattan look like before a concert or basketball game at Madison Square Garden? We have not yet imagined how bad traffic jams can be. This will choke all traffic movement for many blocks away.

3. Hailing Woes

It's hard to get a cab as-is, especially when crowds disperse or weather turns rainy. This is mostly due to limitations on number of taxis, but what happens when a swarm of autonomous cars is available to inexpensively take everyone anywhere? When you push the "hail" button on your iPhone 15, and many people immediately around you do the same, how will the result not be like the chaotic car service pick-up lane at airports, only many times worse?

Between hailing woes and destination overload, how will any proposed nightclubs or movie theaters ever get permission from local community boards, when they'll absolutely choke their neighborhoods? One solution to all this potential mayhem would be to very sharply limit or tax all vehicles in urban areas, but that would make hailing much more difficult than it is now, plus we'd be back where we started, with expensive taxis (perhaps more expensive in light of limits/taxes) and the usual half-assed mass transit...but without the option of driving in and parking. The average citizen would come out worse.

Most cars on city streets are trying to park. This ensures a fanned-out driving pattern. It's polluting and inefficient, but it works. Without this inefficiency, the vast majority of traffic will converge on the top few dozen most popular locales. On the other hand, I suppose that with pedestrian tyranny, no car will ever move anywhere, anyway.

One more thing: if you want to get rich, invest in alcoholic beverage companies starting around 2021. As soon as autonomous cars hit a tipping point, the suburbs will see a level of public intoxication not experienced since medieval England. If, around the same time, we figure out a way to eat caloric foods without gaining weight, things might get interesting.

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