Tag Archives: self-driving cars

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

Detroit leading the self driving car race

Despite all the hype around Google, Uber and Tesla, this report from Navigant Research says GM, Ford, Daimler, Nissan and BMW are leading the race to bring self-driving cars to market. Waymo (Google), Hyundai, Toyota and Tesla are in the middle of the pack, while Honda and Uber are bringing up the rear. To me, it’s an interesting example of how big, powerful, but stodgy corporations can innovate when they are threatened by small upstart players. I wouldn’t have predicted the Detroit companies would pull it off, or that the big Asian players would lag behind. I also thought we might see some partnerships between traditional car companies and tech companies, but the car companies seem to be developing the tech on their own.


electric self-driving cars

Electric cars and self-driving cars are both going to happen at the same time. Here is Inhabitat on the Nissan Leaf:

We’re just a few months away from the debut of the all-new 2018 Nissan Leaf – and the automaker just announced a killer feature for its next-generation electric vehicle. In addition to a complete restyling and a longer driving range, the 2018 Leaf will be able to drive itself with Nissan’s new ProPILOT Assist autonomous technology.

ProPILOT Assist can take over driving tasks on the highway, which includes accelerating, braking and steering controls. The 2018 Leaf won’t have the full SAE Level 4 technology, which would give it the ability to also drive autonomously on city streets. Nissan says that “in the coming years” the ProPILOT Assist technology will be improved to give it the ability to navigate city intersections.

April 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • I first heard of David Fleming, who wrote a “dictionary” that provides “deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences.”
  • Judges are relying on algorithms to inform probation, parole, and sentencing decisions.
  • I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.

self-driving cars, sustainability, and urban form

The debate about the likely impacts of self-driving cars rages on. This article suggests they will “kill the desire for better public transport, and wipe out the jobs of current drivers, plus many other jobs in the transportation system.” I think these charges may be true, but I think the overall impact will depend on the community. I have oriented my life around the idea of taking most of my daily trips for work, shopping, education, and social events on foot. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years, but the advent of ride sharing and mainstreaming of delivery services has made me a lot more comfortable doing it, and has made me comfortable doing it with a young family. There are other people like me out there. On the other hand, I am sure there are also people who live car-dependent lifestyles now who will be even more car-dependent in the future, and if that lifestyle choice becomes even more dominant, it could lead to even less demand for walkable cities in the future. Remember though that most cars are parked most of the time, so even if vehicle miles traveled stay the same or increase, any decrease in demand for private car ownership could have some positive effect on land use for more productive and sustainable uses other than parking (in other words, almost any uses at all).

So I just don’t think we know. I think cities should double down on livability and walkability, but not fight this technology which is probably inevitable. In fact, I think they should treat the technology as inevitable and think about how they can use it to develop more flexible, adaptable public transportation going forward.


Ford seems to be waking up to the possibilities of self-driving cars and integrated multi-modal transportation.

The century-old automaker will buy San Francisco shuttle startup Chariot and expand its services nationally and internationally. Ford also will team up with New York bike-sharing firm Motivate to bring its services to more cities throughout the Bay Area, with the goal of providing 7,000 bikes in the region by the end of 2018, up from the current 700. Riders will be able to access those bikes, as well as shuttles from Chariot, through an online service called FordPass.

“We’re taking a look at the whole ecosystem of moving people around,” Fields said in an interview Friday.

Better late than never. I was wondering if any of the Detroit companies would wake up and join forces with the tech industry, rather than just continuing to fade into irrelevance and obsolescence until one day they are gone and nobody cares. Are GM and Chrysler going to follow or are they just hoping for a government bailout every once in awhile?

Obama on self driving cars

I like the byline on this article from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Barack Obama is president of the United States.

I suppose there are people out there who don’t know that. But are they people who read newspapers?

Anyway, Obama appears to be a fan of self-driving cars:

In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.

Right now, too many people die on our roads – 35,200 last year alone – with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice. Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year…

Even as we focus on the safety of automated vehicles, we know that this technology, as with any new technology, has the potential to create new jobs and render other jobs obsolete. So it’s critical that we also provide new resources and job training to prepare every American for the good-paying jobs of tomorrow.

It’s interesting to measure technological progress in Presidential terms. This is a major technological advance that happened fast, and yet, like most advances, we get used to it so fast we kind of think we saw it coming all along. But many of us remember where we were and what we were thinking about the year Obama got elected, and I don’t remember thinking much about self-driving cars. And if I was mentioning them to friends, I was getting laughed at. Of course, now it turns out those friends knew it all along. What am I predicting for the next eight years. Perhaps we will all have pet glow-in-the-dark woolly mini-mammoths. Or maybe not, but I don’t think exotic genetically engineered pets would be far out of the realm of possibility. You heard it here first.

autonomous vehicles and suburban sprawl

Planetizen says autonomous vehicles won’t lead to more sprawl.

While we recognize the synergies AVs have with transit (something that is likely to be impacted by the technologythat we will discuss in the future), we do not share the belief that AVs will cause a new, unprecedented wave of sprawl. Rather, growing patterns of sprawl and longer “super-commutes” are unlikely outcomes of AVs for three key reasons: 1) the presence of existing land use, transportation, and infrastructure controls and growth management plans; 2) trends in housing consumption and residential preferences; and 3) social dynamics and the emergence of more informed decision-making.

I think the biggest effect of autonomous vehicles within urban areas will be on parking. At the moment, we have enormous numbers of parked vehicles taking up enormous amounts of space right where we are trying to live, work, and shop. With autonomous vehicles, we should either be able to share them, meaning a smaller number of vehicles in motion more of the time rather than parked, or if we really still want to own them, they can go park themselves in out-of-the-way places and come get us when we call them. This could lead to some very vibrant, social, creative, green urban areas.

I can also imagine some people will choose to live completely cloistered lives where they are sitting in comfortable vehicles several hours a day while going to and from work, or going to far-away vacation homes on the weekend. You could even imagine people choosing to live full-time in autonomous RVs.

the “amorality” of self driving cars

This article talks about how a self-driving car might be programmed to make a hard decision in a split second.

Philosopher Jason Millar claims to have originated the idea of the ethically challenged self-driving car in a 2014 paper on robotics. As a grad student he proposed “The Tunnel Problem”—a formulation that has done well online thanks to its simple name (supposedly an analog to the Philosophy 101 “Trolley Problem”).

In the “The Tunnel Problem,” Millar’s driverless car (let’s call her Porsche again) is fast approaching a narrow tunnel, the entrance of which is blocked by a child who has fallen in the roadway. The car can either kill the kid or hit the wall of the tunnel, killing the driver (who is really just a passenger).

The trolley problem is fun – here is a run-down on Wikipedia. You can adapt it to a lot of real-life problems. Is it okay to hurt the few to help the many? Is it okay to hurt bad people who do bad things? Is it wrong to damage natural ecosystems, even if people are not directly hurt or they may even be helped? What if you aren’t sure whether people will be hurt, and the people who might be hurt aren’t even alive yet? Is it enough to not directly cause harm, or are you a bad person if you are not actively trying to reduce harm caused by others? What if you are doing something to reduce harm, but not everything you could be?

As fun as these ethical puzzles are to think about, with predictions that self-driving vehicles could reduce the death toll on our highways and streets by 80%, there is no moral ambiguity in choosing to make that happen as quickly as possible. I think it would be unethical not to.

Back where the rubber meets the road, I think you would just program the computer to always have a plan for how it would stop if it had to stop. Human drivers are supposed to do this, and a computer should be much, much better at it. I suppose there are cases where swerving is the better option – if something jumps out unexpectedly from the side, like a deer, or drops from above, like a tree branch, I suppose swerving could be the right response. But with almost anything unexpected that happens with another vehicle ahead or to the side, it seems like the best option would usually be for all vehicles to stop as quickly as possible. And if all vehicles are computer controlled, it seems like unexpected things shouldn’t happen that often.