Tag Archives: self-driving cars

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.

“new vision” for suburbia

This article from The Smithsonian presents some ideas on the future of suburbia.

With truly autonomous vehicles still years away, no one can say with much certainty if they will result in people spending less time in cars. But Berger does foresee one big potential benefit—much less pavement. Based on the notion that there likely will be more car-sharing and less need for multiple lanes since vehicles could continuously loop on a single track, Berger believes the amount of pavement in a suburb of the future could be cut in half. You would no longer need huge shopping center parking lots, or even driveways and garages.

Not only would fewer paved surfaces increase the amount of space that could be used for carbon-storing trees and plants, but it also would allow more water to be absorbed and reduce the risk of flooding in cities downstream.

That kind of interdependence between suburbs and downtowns is at the heart of how Berger and others at the CAU see the future. Instead of bedroom communities of cul-de-sacs and shopping malls, the suburbs they’ve imagined would focus on using more of their space to sustain themselves and nearby urban centers—whether it’s by providing energy through solar panel micro-grids or using more of the land to grow food and store water.

I almost liked the article until I got to the Joel Kotkin quote:

“The reality is that the large majority of people want to live in suburbs,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow of urban studies at Chapman University in California and the author of The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. “People make these choices for all kinds of reasons that urban theorists don’t pay attention to. They’d rather live in a detached house than in an apartment building. Or they can’t afford to live in the middle of a city. Or they’re worried about where their kids will go to school.”

It’s a scare tactic. Yes, dictators of the past may have forced people into high rise housing blocks at gunpoint in a few cases. That is not happening in the United States right now. In fact, most of us are not able to make a choice between car-dependent and walkable communities because walkable communities are in short supply. Things that are in short supply and high demand tend to be expensive. They are expensive because they are desirable and limited, not because they are undesirable and people are being forced to live there against their will. The nascent trend toward city living would have to continue for a long, long time before there is any lack of suburbs to choose from.

I can’t deny that the state of many urban school districts is problematic. Schools in the United States tend to be locally funded, so that areas with higher concentrations of poverty have worse schools. And areas with higher concentrations of minorities have worse schools because racist and ideologically anti-city politicians from rural areas are able to starve them of funding in many states. All this leads to a downward spiral of poor outcomes and low expectations that is hard to break out of.

more on Tesla and buttock thrusting

Mr. Money Mustache has taken a ride in a Tesla. He says a number of things that were news to me. First, he says the car in question, the $75,000 Tesla S, was the best-selling luxury car in the United States in 2015, claiming over 25% of market share. It’s electric, powered by a rechargeable battery. You can drive about 3 hours and then have to stop to charge for 30 minutes. Tesla has built a network of thousands of free, solar-powered chargers “in the U.S. Europe, China, and elsewhere”. And this car is self-driving right now on the highway, although a person has to take control in the city. All these were things I expected to see commercially widespread in maybe 5-10 years, with skeptics saying 20+ years, but I had no idea they were widespread and commercially available (okay, to be honest, available to the rich) right now. Prices will come down.

He goes on to talk about how self-driving, solar-powered cars could change cities:

Although only multimillionaires should even consider buying a car this expensive, there’s nothing inherently expensive about electric car technology in general. Almost half of the cost of this car is in the battery, and the price of that technology has been dropping like a stone – down by over 80% in just the last 10 years. Tesla just announced their next car, the Model 3, which is almost as good by any reasonable standard and will sell for $35,000. General Motors has a competing model called the Bolt that will be ready much sooner, and all the other car companies are scrambling to catch up…

But the real way to win the car game is not to play it. The best life is spent not sitting on your buttocks within the confines of a car, but using the fine muscles within that curvaceous piece of engineering to thrust your legs downward as you provide your own propulsion. And that’s why I’m excited about what Tesla is doing.

They started deliberately at the top of the market by making prestigious and fun toys for rich people, because we’ll buy anything. But in the long run, the cars are destined to become ever-cheaper, and to be bought by the million by fleet companies like Uber. With cheap autonomous driving at our fingertips, you can summon a car for the time you need it, and then it can promptly go off and serve somebody else. Thus, won’t need to consume our cities with large parking lots, and we won’t need huge garages at home. It might even replace the expensive hassle of local-scale public transportation that we’ve struggled with for so long.

I for one am looking forward to hearing friends and neighbors fret less about parking, get out there and thrust those buttocks!