Self-Driving Cars Cannot Do These Things

…and I believe a few people will have a problem with that…

George Baily
Jul 13, 2014 · 5 min read

First of all, a quick statement that I am pro-technology, a talk-your-ear-off singularitarian, and so would not normally side with luddite points of view.

But as I drive around my “miniature power plant [requiring] its own sovereign fuel source” I struggle to accept the combined obvious benefits of self-driving cars (which is to say cars driven by an early generation set of software written by nerds) when there is so much to lose

The 10 things I believe self-driving cars cannot do well:

  1. Driving around aimlessly for fun.
    When, as a Brit in America, a friend first invited me to go “joyriding”, I assumed the British English meaning of “stealing a car, tearing around endangering life, and then burning the car in a field outside town while dancing around it primevally”. Of course what was actually meant by Americans was “driving around aimlessly for fun, listening to music, talking, looking at things, alternately enjoying the fresh air and puffing smoke out of windows, exploring the (usually urban) environment, and, oh, just enjoying being alive and free”. It would be hard to express this in an algorithm.
  2. Driving in a calculatedly risky way.
    Driving over the speed limit. Whizzing around blind corners. Undertaking. Running amber lights. I could go on: a significant portion of driving enjoyment occurs outside the square world of the highway code, and it is all about calculated risk. Many people drive disgustingly dangerously. Many other people, though, are more competent and can push the envelope with a controlled concept of risk. There is obviously no way to codify bending or calculated breaking of rules, as a rule set: but we all know this is how driving actually works (currently).
  3. Drag racing people away from traffic lights, even if they didn’t realize they are in a race.
    This is a lot of fun and does not harm society.
  4. Driving exactly at the speed limit, or even slowing down a little, to piss off tailgating jerks.
    This is a lot of fun and actually benefits society.
  5. Driving in different styles to adapt to the passengers.
    When I am on my own I can drive in a variety of styles depending on caffeine and which Boston song is playing at uncomfortable decibels. When my family is in the car, the G-forces are dialled down. On the other hand, when two (heterosexual) men share a ride a primal gene is activated calling for ostentatious rubber burning. Having to acknowledge these styles as if by selecting a preset on a graphic equalizer, would defeat the point.
  6. Getting lost.
    I am not as ridiculously hippie as to suggest that getting lost is a deliberate or fun experience. However, when it accidentally happens, and despite being invariably annoying and stressful, it turns out to provide all sorts of knowledge we would not otherwise have found. So, yes, I am hippie enough to believe accidental, annoying, and stressful experiences are often enlightening.
  7. Overtaking cyclists in a way that is still safe but noticeably aggressive-sounding enough to make them, just maybe, reconsider their stupid idea of riding without lights or reflective gear, in the twilight, on a bendy road, when there is a perfectly good pavement/sidewalk right there that they could be using.
  8. Avoiding potholes
    For reasons of the Decline of the West, wealthy countries like the UK are apparently OK with third-world style holes and subsidence in public highways. I am not OK with driving over them, and I will swerve and slalom, including crossing centre lines, in order to save my suspension and spine. Everything I have come to know about software says that every single time, it will choose the safe, straight line, right BADONGK over that pothole.
  9. Avoiding running over animals.
    I am pretty sure driverless cars will avoid elk and bison better than we can. But will they twitch the wheel in the dark to avoid toads crossing to the pond to mate, slow down to let the pigeon fly away, align the wheels so we don’t squash a snail in my driveway, or go around an already-squashed hedgehog that might -just might- give me a puncture? I think not.
  10. Get a fully dilated wife to the maternity ward on time.
    Road safety vs delivering a baby in the back of a car: chew on that, first rule of robotics.

The above things are not beyond the capabilities of AI: for example I have no doubt that you’ll be able to download a 99c app that will take you on an accurately curated and multimedia-enhanced replica of Jack Kerouac’s journey around the States. But from that example I hope an obvious question of authenticity arises…

Any function or behaviour we can perform as human drivers can be accurately mimicked, and usually “optimized”, by software. But these are things which never in a million years will the software designers be building into AI-driven vehicles.

Yet these are the things I think are going to be hard to lose the right to for many individuals, or at the least the things which we will suddenly miss when it is too late. The last generation of drivers will lament some of the subtle freedoms they lost. Of course, the next generations would not get the nostalgia at all, especially considering the amazing change in road safety…

Now, I am aware that there will be many people who look at the above list and think we can do without all of these things — in fact the world gets better in general when people are prevented from being unsafe in all sorts of other ways too, they will say.

And…the above questions of human choice — even when often irrational and often against the interests of others — assume we still have our own private car. Now look at the way much of the “driverless future is shiny” discussions make massive sweeping assumptions that most everyone will just stop having private cars and share a pool of vehicles because that is so much more ecological, socially rational, and economically equalizing. (Often I suspect it is the latter politics as an unconscious attraction being dressed up in eco and safety arguments.)

Combining the above, in other words, it seems most of the technology developers and fans of self-driving cars are blithely assuming everyone is going to be OK with an extensive sacrifice of liberties.

I now see the future of self-driving cars at its core being a debate of concepts of liberties vs big-statism… individual responsibilities vs paternalistic utilitarian calculations of how to limit the human factor… Sounds familiar and I won’t tell you the odds.

Thank you for reading and recommending this ranticle by @georgebaily

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