Self-driving cars – should we treat them like cars or computers?

I can’t open a newspaper without reading about how self-driving cars are the future of transportation. And I don’t doubt that there are huge possibilities. However, there is this one big question mark – are self-driving cars in reality cars, or are they computers?

It might seem like semantics, but please consider this for a moment: I bought a used Opel Corsa in 2008. It was manufactured in March 2000. Yes, it was 8 years old when I bought it, and it worked just fine. Fast forward to 2017. The car is now 17 years old and it still works fine. You insert the key, you turn the ignition, the engine starts (even when it’s freezing cold), you drive. The amout of computer power in a 17-year-old Opel Corsa is limited, to say the least. But it still works.

Now consider the smartphone you had 17 years ago. Oh, you didn’t have one? That’s because they weren’t invented yet. And a computer in the year 2000 with the same processing abilities as your smartphone today would probably have been the size of… my car.

I use a simple rule-of-thumb when I consider almost anything non-organic (and many aspects of human biology as well): is it mechanical or is it informational?

Mechanical systems are usually comparatively simple, reliable and easy to repair. That is because there are physical dimensions, parts cannot be infinitely small, so the amount of parts is limited, limiting the possible interactions of parts.

Information systems are much more complicated, and some are even complex. What is easier to understand, a hammer (mechanical assembly) or 4000 lines of code (informational system)? This example is obviously exaggerated, but you get the picture.

My point is, self-driving cars with all their electrical systems, processing processes, automated automatons and surveillance systems are computers. They are not mechanical projects, they are software projects.

Please consider what that implies regarding

  • How often will you have to buy a new self-driving “car”?
  • Who will repair a self-driving car: a mechanic or an IT-guy?
  • What about security? I know that any thug can steal my car, but at least he has to stand next to it. No hacker can steal my car from the other side of the world.

Thankfully there is some debate about the legal and ethical implications of self-driving cars. I think it will help our understanding of the issues if we started calling them “transportation computers” instead.