I Find Your Lack Of Faith In Autonomous Cars Disturbing


I am not a smart man. I mean, I get on alright, but there’s no mistaking my role as the comic relief when flanked at a table by the engineers, lawyers, and philosophers I call my friends. Yet, if my incessant futurist rants have exposed anything over the years, it is that the instinctive haze of mankind’s hubris impairs even the brightest minds when the topic turns to technology and its encroachment on our comfy little existence.

I’ve now heard enough naysayings from these otherwise brilliant people railing against the value of autonomous cars that I thought it might do everyone some good to piece together an exhaustive list of arguments. Autonomous cars will bring about one of the most important cultural shifts we’ll witness over the coming decades; I can’t have you smart folk mucking up progress with your silly dystopian fears. And hey, the timing seems appropriate enough, no? Twas just a few weeks back that ze Germans stormed CES with their autonomous concept cars while, a mere 400 miles away, America broke ground on its first high speed rail project — the “other” future of transportation, according to people who are wrong.

A little semantic housekeeping before we begin:

  • “Autonomous cars” means autonomous vehicles, a.k.a. self-driving, connected vehicles. The important part is the autonomy — the “vehicles” don’t have to be cars. They can and will be whatever makes sense. Too many people get hung up on the idea of the car itself as an inferior transportation mode. We’ll use the word “car” here because a) it’s a more concrete visual than “vehicle”; b) the car is the most important vehicle in the shift towards autonomy. Many other transportation modes already enjoy a level of autonomy, connectivity and structure. Cars are the unruly, underachieving kids whose behavior is holding us back — and at the same time, they have the broadest application potential.
  • “Autonomous cars” also means autonomous fleets, as far as I’m concerned. One autonomous car on a road is nothing to write home about. Google’s already made this a reality, and as you can see, your life hasn’t changed much because of it yet. Throughout this article, remember that we’re talking about replacing the entirety of road-going vehicles in a given city or area with an autonomous fleet. That’s where the real technological home runs will start to fly.

Introduction


First off, allow me to pitch you on the core themes of autonomous cars, as it’s possible you don’t foam at the mouth with quite the same fervor I do when it comes to this topic.

Amazon’s autonomous Fulfillment Center fleet
And in the other corner…

Point #1: Connectivity. Autonomous cars create a highly connected system of transportation, the likes of which dwarf any transportation mode humanity has developed so far. The efficiency of interactions within any system is the secret to unlocking its potential. You want flying cars? You don’t start by building a flying car. You start by building a system in which vehicles can travel in a constantly predictable and optimizable pattern. Then you can eventually make the cars do whatever you want, like go fast, or fly, or teleport. Most of the mass transit models we currently use are “connected enough” and have little remaining potential to squeeze from their particular applications. Cars are entirely unconnected, and would be exponentionally more effective tools for humanity if they were. See above animations to drive that point home. As a huge bonus, the ride-sharing model — that environment-friendly, highly economical solution we’ve been so stubborn to adopt because it infringes on our luxury — simply becomes a natural reality of autonomous fleets, thanks to the connectivity inherent to the system. Autonomous fleets will know that fifteen other people are going where you’re going at 5pm, and will offer you a bus as a more economical option than a car.

Point #2: Modularity. Flexibility is another huge factor in developing successful systems. No plan is perfect, nor any design flawless. Cars represent the most flexible transportation model thanks to their modularity. Each car is its own set of data points, creating significantly more analytical granularity than a bus, train or plane could deliver. Mo’ data equals mo’ input, which leads to mo’ betta output.

The upshot is a transportation model that exerts energy at the exact level of consumer demand, while finding the most efficient routes, with specific vehicles to satisfy the disparate needs of travel. And, if you consider these points, you’ll see how modularity breeds a financially viable system. You’re willing to ride-share in a car on your way from downtown to uptown at 7pm? Great, ten cents per minute. You need the system to pick you up from a remote location at 3am with a vehicle that can tow a boat? That’ll be fifty cents per minute. By quantifying costs and serving them as modular, a la carte options, we improve the system’s (and people’s) awareness of consumption habits… which leads to optimization, which leads to greater efficiency.

Point #3: Safety. While I’ll go into further detail as we proceed, this is old news — a reality more than a proposed benefit. Nearly every car built in the past twenty years has some form of computer-driven decision-making system which was put there because you, human, are armed and dangerous behind the wheel. Traction control, ABS, adaptive cruise, brake assist, lane departure warnings, systems that can react to accidents before they happen — all of these have been designed to save us from ourselves. No transportation mode stands more to gain in the prevention of death and injury than cars. Furthermore, the fleet’s more efficient footprint will free up roads and real estate to be better utilized for public good, and its centralized management will allow for faster adoption of environmentally beneficial technologies. Everyone will breathe easier, literally and figuratively.

Point #4: Perspective. The reason it has taken California 30 years to begin construction on a high-speed train from LA to San Fran, and New York 40 years to begin construction on a 2nd Avenue subway line, is because no one wants to make the wrong decision. Such major infrastructure decisions become your reality, and once you’ve made the choice to invest resources, there’s no reversing the destiny you’ve set forth towards. To wit: where would America be if we hadn’t built the Interstate Highway system? Would we be worse off, or would someone have invented a much more efficient solution? How would that change have affected our industries? Our consumption habits? Our relationships? Our health? We can do nothing but speculate on these questions, because the money was spent, and the country is already changed because of it. We can’t undo the investment, nor can we know where we’d be if another path had been chosen. Autonomous cars, however, can alter and optimize our reality. How? Collectively, they know more than we do, and can conceive of opportunities faster than we can. In short, they predict our realities before we experience them. An autonomous fleet could tell us that it would be economically advantageous to close a bridge rather than repair it, or that a company could save its employees 500 hours a week in travel time by changing to a flex schedule, or… hell, autonomous cars could tell us that autonomous cars are a bad idea. They could tell us the most efficient option for a particular area is one mass-transit vehicle running the same twenty-point route every day, and that cars are totally unnecessary there. The cars generate data, and data has no hidden agenda. As long as we can remember how to listen, autonomous cars will tell us how to change our reality for the better, in ways we’ve yet to imagine. Artificial intelligence is undoubtedly the most important development in the history of humanity, and autonomous vehicles are one of the most practical applications of AI we have available to study today.

Point #5: Familiarity. Much of what is to come in the next quarter-century will be absolutely frightening to most of us. When faced with the fear of such technological progress, our natural reaction — as it has always been — will be to fight it. To fight progress. But we can’t afford to fight progress, which means we have to make our technological leaps in ways that don’t jar our conventional grasp on life. The more “familiar” the progress is, the more likely it is to be adopted. The iPhone revolutionized telecommunications because it didn’t require a huge learning curve. Walking around in an artificial body sounds like science fiction, so we’ve started by replacing injured parts like legs and hearts… soon, we’ll move on to parts that enhance your life, like bionic ears… eventually, you’ll be comfortable printing yourself a new body. The gradual improvements are the ones most quickly adopted, which is why cars are the answer. Americans own cars, and personally identify with them. Asking longtime car owners to take a train to work floods their heads with thoughts of lifestyle changes they don’t want to make, or don’t know how to make. Asking an entire city to use bicycles has the same effect. Autonomous fleets simply ask, “can you do what you already do, but just spend less, worry less, die less, and enjoy more freedom?”

There’s so much more to be said, but let’s cover it as we squash some of the beef I’ve heard from the haters. By the way, thanks for sticking around.


Rebuttals


“What about hackers? They could take down the whole system.” Yep. They could wreak all kinds of havoc. People will surely be injured and killed because of hackers. But I’m going to tell you what someone should’ve told you in 1995: from here on out, every major leap for mankind will further connect our world, and as a consequence, benefit our everyday lives while increasing the potential threat of mass devastation. You can move to a country that isn’t fueled by the internet, or you can stop saying “what about hackers” every time something gets invented. The autonomous fleet is modular, which means that as one vehicle encounters a problem, vehicles around it can learn of the problem and react to it. I find much more comfort in this future than in one where mass transit vehicles can be hacked, and hundreds are held hostage as a result.

Of course, you could also take a moment to appreciate that most forms of mass transit are already easily hacked without knowing the first thing about computers: park your car on a train track, set an air traffic control tower on fire — just as the easiest way to “hack” someone’s identity is to go through their garbage, it is the low-tech crime we have the most difficulty preventing. Point is, people who love to watch the world burn will always have their outlets. But let’s move on, because I have a more significant point to make on this front.

Roughly 40,000 deaths and 2,000,000 injuries are brought upon Americans every year. Not by a few hackers who we can hunt down, reform, negotiate with, or outsmart… but by an invisible terrorist group. An army of thousands who walk among us in broad daylight, drawing nary a hint of suspicion until it’s too late. You know who I’m talking about:

Us.

We unleash large-scale death and carnage every year, without fail, simply by being horrible drivers. It’s mass murder you could set your watch to, yet we accept it as an inevitable reality of automotive travel. If I told you I couldn’t care less about those who died of breast cancer or gun violence this year, what would you think of me as a person? Yet most of us dismiss car accidents, which kill roughly the same number as each of the aforementioned. You, American public, are deadlier than any hacker will ever be.

Autonomous cars can and will solve this problem — almost entirely — but to succeed, you folks will have to do something that’s traditionally not been your strong suit: you’ll need to pay attention to the data, and not the rhetoric. There’s a good chance some horrendous bug or hack on the part of autonomous cars will cause an accident that kills 500 people in a single misstep. But if the system’s safety record during normal operation is flawless (which it very well could be), then your year-over-year comparison of automotive deaths will be 500 vs. 40,000. That’s an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, with one difficult caveat: unlike the 40,000 deaths, most of which never even make the news or will be shrugged off as random acts, that solitary 500-person accident will be one of the biggest media stories of the year. Pundits will come out of the woodwork pointing fingers, old crotchety asswipes will say, “I dun told you them robot cars wuddn’t no good!”, and your TV will be filled with the weeping widows of the dead as lower-third headline graphics flash, “Self-Driving Cars: America’s Death Trap?”. So what I need all of you to do when that happens is turn off the TV. Such an accident can be analyzed, solved, and future-proofed by engineers to make self-driving fleets even safer, while our collective lack of driving skill cannot.

Tens of thousands of lives saved each year. That’s the headline, and that’s the whole story. Anything else is fear-mongering trumped up by an entity whose primary role in society is to show you an ad for laundry detergent. Don’t base your life’s decisions on the tricks of laundry detergent salesmen.


“It would be far too expensive to prepare the entire country for efficient autonomous car travel.” Sure, any innovative infrastructure project is going to cost us something on paper. But… we already spend a literal crapload of cash on the more conventional version of this infrastructure, which means we’re playing with house money. How much, you say? Welp, let’s start with this chump change:

Eight hundred and seventy-one billion dollars. Every year. To crash our cars.

Now, say what you will about the fact that $600B of this number is attributed to the hard-to-quantify social impact, like the value of your life (apparently it’s around $1.4MM), but $277B of the NHTSA’s gargantuan figure is real money — construction costs, medical expenses, etc. — and so at the very least, the final number is likely somewhere between $277B and $871B. Remember, this is not the total cost of being an automobile-centric nation. It doesn’t include car ownership, fuel, new construction, vehicle maintenance, or regulation… it is merely the price of our inability to drive safely. That annual cost to you averages somewhere around $900. And if you ever found yourself mumbling under your breath that the car accident up ahead was costing you time and money… welp, that’s the $600B talking.

Okay, so we’ve already got $871B to play with. Add to that the $700B or so of annual vehicle sales revenue that Americans could be dumping into the infrastructure rather than corporations’ pockets, and we’re looking at a cool $1.6 trillion — easily double the entire U.S. military defense budget , and supposedly more than half of what the entire world spends on infrastructure?? — before we bother to approach the rest of our nation’s bottomless pit of car-centric expenses. A lot of these costs are manifestations of our ownership model: we own the car, we own the gas, we own the insurance policy, we own the replacement parts, we own the driveway the car sits in, etc. Most of these costs are extremely poor economic investments, made to appear necessary by our conventional culture. When you consider the debt we’re already ringing up each year to travel inefficiently by car, autonomous fleets are not only affordable to run — they’re actually more favorable investments for both the public and the governing bodies.

As a thought-starter, I’ve outlined an admittedly simplistic comparison below, between the ownership (conventional) model and usage (autonomous) model. The basic math professes the best of both worlds: citizens save money, and governing bodies make money. We’ll talk more about this when we address mass transit alternatives later in the article, but soak the figures up and remember the overall reality is more complex, but complex in a way that should beget clarity and innovation rather than bickering and war chesting.

Again, this is an overly simplified comparison. Many of the estimates vary widely, and many of the data points discount external factors. The takeaway should be that there does appear to be a clear path to price points that are a) more affordable for consumers, and b) actually profitable for governing bodies.

“I wouldn’t feel safe giving up control to a machine.” At this point in the article, we’ve covered a lot of what needs to be covered to respond to such an argument. But for the sake of answering more directly:

You have already given up control, and you are safer because of it. The more you give up, the safer you’ll be. Traffic fatalities have dropped roughly 30% in the past decade, thanks almost entirely to the technologies that take control away from us.

The car you’re driving already makes many of the hardest decisions for you, like ensuring maximum braking in an emergency, or re-routing power to the wheels that have traction in poor road conditions. And in the most advanced vehicles (which, again, many of you already own and operate), the digital brain and its sensors can anticipate an accident or emergency — and act on it — faster than you can acknowledge something is happening at all. These cars could save your life, but currently, they’re primarily programmed to provide warnings. I repeat: many cars on today’s market could stop us from killing ourselves, but because we don’t “feel safe” about ceding that control, they’re programmed to let us kill ourselves anyway.

Here’s the level of autonomy that your average Joe (with $50k to drop on a new car) can buy right now. Infiniti’s combination of “Active Lane Control”, “Adaptive Cruise Control”, and drive-by-wire technology results in a vehicle that will effectively drive itself and stay with the pace of traffic, even slowing to a stop if need be. Note that the vehicle observes lane markings, so it’s still not viable in poor weather conditions . The Infiniti also won’t navigate sharp turns, but that’s supposedly more of a legal limitation than a technological limitation.

Modern man struggles with the distinction between “fear” and “danger.” Ask most people if they’d “feel safe” skydiving and they’d stare back at you wide-eyed. But we’re 20x more likely to die in a car than by skydiving. In reality, you fear what is relatively safe, and you’re comfortable doing something much more dangerous several times a day… let alone those of you who let taxis or Ubers haul you around. You’d put your life in a stranger’s hands as they wield one of the most dangerous weapons on our planet? Of course you would, because you see others do it, and most of the time, they turn out okay. Conversely, you rarely get to see a successful skydive first-hand, which in your mind makes the idea dangerous, because you haven’t been able to establish a predictable stereotype of the situation. You fear the unfamiliar, and your primitive brain tells you the fear is a symptom of danger.

We are indeed primitive. So let us be primitive in the comfort of the backseat as Google whisks us away to our destination. You’ll feel just fine after you’ve experienced it a few times. Stop being a caveman about it.

And remember, when you object that you don’t “feel safe”, your objection to the technology is slowing the progress that could save upwards of 40,000 lives annually. We’re not starting from zero here — there’s an epidemic waiting to be cured.


“What we need are proven mass transit solutions, not the latest car-based fantasy damaging the environment and perpetuating urban sprawl.” Unlike other arguments made against autonomous cars — most of which are fleeting perspectives destined to be conveniently forgotten once the technology is in place — this statement has serious repercussions because of the money involved. As I previously stated, once you decide to shell out tax dollars for infrastructure, that money is gone. The Transportation Department is outlining a 30-year plan for the future of U.S. transit as we speak. The vision is not one we can afford to have clouded by partisan politics and selfish agendas.

In such spirit, I’ll begin by outlining the problems with my own perspective.

Like many of America’s 20th century infrastructure projects, the Interstate Highway system was a reach at its inception: aggressively funded and prioritized as an inalienable facet of U.S. culture, only to be built with materials and technologies that have since become antiquated and high-maintenance. Our roads are as good a testament as any to the mind-blowing speed at which humanity’s best ideas become outdated ones thanks to their own implementation. We learn best by doing, and in “doing” the Interstate Highway project, we’ve learned a lot.

The U.S. road system is at the same impass as many other 20th century initiatives: it has failed to self-sustain (the gas tax doesn’t cover maintenance costs, nor does it make much sense in a world of alternate fuel vehicles), causing us to dip into funds from elsewhere to keep it alive… yet at the same time, the infrastructure needs to evolve as we do. This is the dilemma across the country: do we keep whittling away at the budget to keep the lights on, or do we bite the bullet and pour a ton of cash into advances that we hope end up having been the right choice a century from now? But the point I’m making is that autonomous cars are the only solution that will actually help us make those decisions more intelligently, and that’s why we need to keep funding our roads. Allow me to explain:

The Tappan Zee Bridge in New York connects one of the richest counties in America with… well, some other county. It also happens to be one of the primary arteries for entry into New York City. Alas, it was built on a tight budget 60 years ago, and as such, was engineered to last only 50 years. Nope, your math’s not wrong: this monstrosity is living on borrowed time. The bridge replacing the Tappan Zee should be finished around 2018 to the tune of $5 billion in construction costs. But what if autonomous cars traveled the current bridge? Would we save a few million by having civil engineers communicate with the cars to program driving patterns that would exert less stress on the bridge, thereby extending the bridge’s life? Would we save a few hundred million by having cars that could drive seamlessly at high speed around construction workers as they assembled the new bridge and dismantled the old? Would we save the entire $5b by asking the cars to take alternate routes, only to find that a fleet of connected vehicles could get everyone to their destinations just as efficiently without any bridge at all? We’ll have to support self-driving cars to find out, but one thing should be clear: wherever we can put these cars on the ground, they will improve our economy, in every sense of the word.

Alright, now where was I? Oh yes, bursting the mass transit bubble.

I’ve heard a few detractors refer to autonomous cars as “fantasy”, supposedly in comparison to the well-established options of heavy/light rail and rapid transit buses. Folks, these contraptions are quite real. They’ve been driving around amongst us in several states. Conventional car manufacturers have built iterations of them, and most estimate that you will be able to walk into a dealership and buy one in the next 2–5 years. The University Of Michigan has created a fake city just to test these things. Are they fantasies because you’ve never seen one in your driveway? By that logic, any solution is a fantasy. Just because a bullet train worked in Japan doesn’t make it “real” for Californians. Autonomous cars will be consumable solutions long before any mass transit option actually completes construction. The fantasy’s all on your end, champ. Case in point: subways.

Arguably the most familiar poster child for those who perpetuate the mass transit argument is the New York City subway. I can sympathize with anyone who has spent time in NYC enjoying the relative benefits of the subway. Unfortunately, your allegiance is poorly placed for three significant reasons: 1) you’re referencing subways, 2) you’re referencing New York City, and 3) you’re specifically referencing the New York City subway. None of those are good reference points for what America’s cities should be doing.

  1. Subways. This form of transit is the most permanent installation of all the options available to us, which makes it a bad idea by its very design. It’s also preposterously expensive to build under and around established real estate, as the upcoming Manhattan 2nd Avenue Line’s $2 billion per stop construction costs can attest to. Your city had its chance when costs and population density were manageable, and you blew it. I’m looking at you Cincinnati… and Cleveland… and Rochester… and Pittsburgh. But hey, don’t take my word for it: if anyone’s interested in watching a modern-day subway investment fail in real-time at the hands of autonomous cars, the fine residents of Los Angeles just saw a new subway line break ground two months ago. Best of luck with that. By the way, even when you give up on your subway, you’re still locked into perpetually blowing cash on its ghost to ensure the tunnels don’t like, cause $2 billion in flood damage and stuff.
  2. New York City. The cities I just rattled off may have bungled their subway initiatives for any number of reasons, but there is a consistent lesson to be learned across all of them: your city is not New York City. Very few cities in America even come close. Chicago? Sure. Boston and D.C.? To some degree, yes. L.A.? Nope, which is why their rail ridership is nowhere near commensurate with their population. And *insert your city here*? For better or worse, your ‘hood doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to build and maintain a subway. What’s NYC’s recipe? Hilariously dense population. A century of the richest people in the nation begging, borrowing and stealing to keep their investments afloat. Living costs so enormous that the notion of owning and operating a car is a joke. Enough variation in socio-economic structure and destinations that creating any kind of cultural gap is next to impossible. It’s almost an exclusive claim of NYC that you could find yourself on a subway sitting next to a millionaire, who is sitting next to an elderly lady, who is sitting next to a homeless man, who is sitting next to a girl moving her entire bedroom set, who along with the rest of you is watching a group of unsupervised chidren dancing on the poles. All of those people need to be present for a subway to flourish.
  3. The New York City Subway. Actually, NYC’s railway is not flourishing, much as it may masquerade as the dominant solution for traversing the city. It is not — and arguably has never been — profitable to run, as taxpayers annually pony up the half of its $6 billion operating costs that fare revenues don’t cover. Does your city have an annual tax surplus lying around waiting to be squandered? You know, on top of the billions you’ll need to build the subway in the first place? It’s a situation that got complicated here very quickly. There’s no doubt that the subway has been crucial to New York City’s growth and success, but the question remains: is this the best we could have done? The subway’s contributions as a resource, and its drain on other resources in NYC, are obfuscated to the point that no one truly understands how much its presence affects the community. Every New Yorker will tell you a subway ride costs $2.50, and every one of them is wrong. Subsidies, capitalized costs, tax dollars, loans, backdoor deals, incentive programs… these are all expenses you don’t see when you swipe your MetroCard. Did you know the MTA went through a debt restructure in 2002 that pushed $8.6B of costs out to 2015 (oh yeah, that’s this year!), or that it hid its financial woes by simply refusing to file required financial projections between 1999 and 2003? I can do this all day, people. But the upshot is that no city should follow a transit model that needed world-class robber barons to get it off the ground and mythical pots of gubment gold to keep it afloat.

Perhaps the most comical insight regarding subways is illustrated below. In short distances, the logistics of subway travel make it a fairly slow option. In long distances (which is the case for most cities), the gains in speed are more noticeable, but longer distances mean a lower concentration of riders, which means you have to wait longer for a ride, which means you lose time again. And so, if you’ll humor me just a bit, I feel compelled to point out that after 110 years of subway development in New York, you can still get where you’re going faster with a 200-year-old solution: a bicycle.

Yes, a bicycle. Many Americans mock the notion of a bike as an everyday form of travel, but it’s probably the hardest transportation method for autonomous cars to argue against on paper. It’s the only solution that is environmentally friendly, it’s by far the most affordable solution to implement and maintain… it even promotes better physical and mental health. Unfortunately, it’s just not the right solution for a country as large and dispersed as ours. Paris and Hamburg are aggressively pursuing the bike route (won’t be my last pun), but what they’ve got going for them is urban design unfavorable to cars and, consequently, much lower rates of car ownership. They’ve also been respecting and funding bicycle-based transit much longer than we have.

But that doesn’t mean bicycles can’t play a legitimate role as part of the solution on the autonomous grid… after all, remember that we don’t really care what autonomous vehicles look like as long as they satisfy the most efficient design for their required purpose.

Bikes have a lot more potential than you likely give them credit for. Inventions like the Copenhagen Wheel, which turns your pedaling into electrical power assist, have made bicycles viable for folks who don’t want every trip to be a grueling, sweaty workout. With minimal investment, engineers could easily bring bikes figuratively and literally up to speed with autonomous car traffic. The solution may not resemble the bicycle you grew up riding, but it would be better-balanced to comfortably suit riders and cargo of various sizes, and better-equipped to operate in harmony with cars. They’d simply be another option on the connected grid, which you could unlock with your phone (or whatever the kids will be using in 10 years) and hop on for a fraction of the cost of getting in a car. Again, the autonomous fleet concept has no allegiances — if it turns out that 75% of New Yorkers prefer bikes, then bikes it shall be. We’re talking about the same innovation, regardless of vehicle. On a personal note, I’m really looking forward to bikes as part of the shared/connected transit model. Might even buy me a silly horn.

My fair city of Pittsburgh has recruited its citizens to nominate a plan for a Bus Rapid Transit system. You know what’d be better than building another bus system? Building an autonomous bus system that could self-optimize its routes and coordinate logistics with all of its customers, service providers and city planners simultaneously. You know what’d be even better than that? Not crippling the system by limiting the technology to buses. Like, maybe smaller buses too. And a few vans. And some cars. And even bikes. See? We’re arguing for the same solution after all… except that you have a weird fetish for buses. Your naughty secret’s safe with me, chap.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention high-speed rail as one of the most anticipated solutions for the future of American transportation. But really, there’s a lot of bark here, and not much bite. Take everything I said about subways and tone it down a notch, because above-ground rail is obviously easier to build and re-route, easier to iterate when new technology develops, and so forth. That doesn’t excuse high-speed rail from its limitations as a fixed path system, which means that you have to make a lot of tough decisions before you ever lay the first piece of track, and that those decisions become difficult to reverse once the tracks are laid. So now you’re fighting against the clock of general technological and social progress which, if anything I’ve written so far has illuminated, is a death sentence. California’s HSR project took 30 years to plan, and will take 5 years (that’s what they say) to soft launch. Then it will take some number of years before it’s completed, and more years after that until it has the chance to become an economic asset rather than an immense liability. So many years. So little time. If you believe we have that kind of time to waste, then my request is simple: wait for it. Wait for America’s first HSR to become a reality, then look at what other states and countries have done with autonomous cars, and make your decision at that point. There exists so much speculation on both sides of California’s project that it really does need to just get built, unfortunately. Someone has to be the guinea pig who shows the rest of the country what not to do… and yes, the rest of the country is indeed watching — it’s the first episode of a huge transportation plan.

Better yet, since L.A. is participating in both a subway and high-speed rail project, it would be really awesome of the city’s residents to ban autonomous cars, so that the rest of the country can observe a clean control group to find out what happens when you try to build 20th century transportation tech in the 21st century. I’m not being sarcastic. I think the move would be vital to the education of politicians and the general public. My vote is for us as a nation to allocate an acceptable level of funding to the city of L.A. for its current transportation initiatives, and to offer some sort of financial promise to its residents that if things go south as a result, they can yell “mercy”, and the rest of us will jump in to bail them out (no worries, it won’t cost much —a few thousand autonomous cars and bikes will get the city back on track.)

Now, all of these transportation alternatives share one significant fault: they merely claim to improve our culture, not revolutionize it. Bicycles would be the best option if we only cared about the environment. High-speed rail would be the best option if we only cared about getting hundreds of people from Fixed Point A to Fixed Point B. And subways would be the best option if it were 1942 and we only cared about having shelters to protect us from Nazi carpet-bombing. But the fact is our needs are immediate, myriad and ever-evolving. There exists no other transportation policy or technology that will revolutionize and revitalize our nation in so many ways now, while creating the foundation for the future, i.e. the crazy stuff like flying and teleporting and *your sci-fi fantasy here*. To fund any alternative is to send tax dollars to their graves. We’re already decades beyond the era when it was safe to bet on established infrastructure models; it is unfortunately only now, in 2015, that we all have the vision to see why. The mass transit projects of yore are not safe in the face of autonomous technology, and if you are lucky enough to be one of the folks holding the purse strings to a state budget, I implore you — for the sake of your career, if nothing else — to have the guts and/or logic to make the safe decision.


“There’s no way cars will learn enough about the intricacies of driving to be effective. It’s too complex a problem-solving process.” Wait. You’re… you’re serious, aren’t you. This is an actual statement that came from your mouth. Sigh. Okay…

Think about how much your driving has improved over the past decade. Are you even any better at all? Do you still tailgate cars with better braking performance than your car? Are you still not aware of what the left lane is for? Do you still brake before you signal? Are you still clueless about how your all-wheel-drive system works? Do you still fail to grasp the logic behind a “limo stop”? Are you still driving around without knowing which parts of your car require maintenance and what will happen if they aren’t attended to?

Here’s an abridged version of what the autonomous car ecosystem did in the past decade while you were learning nothing about driving:

  • The iPhone went from not existing to being the most important item you have on your person at any given time — and, the primary means of coordinating your travel on-demand.
  • Google Maps went from not existing to being the world’s most popular smartphone app, used by the majority of smartphone owners on this planet every month to understand the world around them.
  • Self-driving programs went from incorrectly identifying 1 of every 8 pixels to recognizing the distance and trajectory of specific obstacles, such as a biker indicating a left turn as opposed to a child running into the road.
  • Technology in cars on the market went from knowing that the brakes have locked up to knowing that the car is going to flip over in the next 1.3 seconds, and that it needs to apply braking to the left rear wheel to prevent the flip because you’re not fast/smart enough to do it yourself.
  • Uber went from not existing to being a $41B company challenging taxi cabs on an international level, and drastically improving the market for on-demand transportation.
  • Autonomous concept cars went from failing to travel 500 feet in the first DARPA-sponsored competition to consistently driving 50,000 miles in regular commuter traffic without committing a significant error — debatably better than the average human already.

Your brain is stupid. So is mine. Appreciate computer brains while they’re still young enough for us to have some faint idea of what they’re thinking, because by the time we’ve “perfected” self-driving cars to the satisfaction of naysayers and politicians, the digital brain will be too intelligent to comprehend. Your argument is laughably short-sighted. Please sit down.

Wait, did you sit down already? Don’t sit down yet! First read this experiment which concluded that computers can make a more accurate assessment of people’s personalities — using only Facebook likes — than the friends and family members of those people. Check out the chart below. Crazy. And if you’re still not convinced computer brains are out of your league, you can read up on how computers are analyzing your facial expressions in real-time… most assuredly to sell you something, of course.

Your Macbook knows you better than your friends do. If I’m being honest, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/01/07/1418680112.abstract

“Autonomous cars will crush one of America’s most beloved freedoms and symbols of individuality. The public won’t allow it.” Okay, I’m going to answer this argument logically, I promise. But to set the stage, I just have to get this out: you, my dear fellow, are a sucker. You’ve been successfully assimilated by crony capitalism to the point that you believe owning a thing, and piloting that thing to the same damn places everyone else is compelled to pilot their things to in order to live in comfort, somehow makes you free.

Now, I know I’ve dug myself a hole with that statement. What I will say in my defense is that I am that person. I grew up loving cars. I love learning about cars. I watch WRC and F1 races. I’ve gone beyond my means to own a sports car, spending many a day driving it the long way home, and taking it out on weekend nights to some winding road. When I record music, I sit in my car to listen to it. I’ve slept in my car simply because it felt right at the time. I’m the only person I know in Brooklyn who owns a car. The point is, I am you.

The last car I’ll ever own. Goodbye, my love!

Freedom is relative. In fact, freedom is nowhere near as magical as we make it out to be. It’s a zero-sum game. The more power you have over something, the more freedom you have… but the more oppressed the other party is. And that extends to millions of little interactions you might not be considering. To speak to my accusation above, you certainly have power over when and where you drive your vehicle… but that isn’t a realistic representation of your freedom, because you don’t have the power to not show up to your job, or skip traffic jams, or get the best parking spot. So you’re free up until the point that your driving diverts you from the obligations in your life that have power over you, or until other drivers get in your way, or until you can’t physically or financially get your car on the road. To add to that, during the times when you’re driving, you’re not free to sleep, work, read, etc. So even when we talk about your personal freedom, it’s clear that you’re notably more oppressed than you might let on. Autonomous fleets will make cars more affordable to use, let you not worry about parking, traffic, maintenance or repairs, free up your time to work or sleep as you travel… the list goes on. Keep that in mind while we take a moment to acknowledge the people who have even less freedom than you:

Do you have kids? Pets? Elderly relatives? Handicapped friends? Few of them can legally drive, which is oppressing enough on its own, but even more problematic when you remember that it’s folks like you who have to take on the obligation of driving them around. Chalk that up as even less freedom for all. And drunk drivers? Other than the douchebag in my high school who claimed he “loves driving drunk”, I’m sure we can all agree that DUIs typically happen by accident — and as such, those people would much prefer to get where they need to go without having to sit behind the wheel. Collectively, we’re looking at a hundred million people or so whose freedom over their personal limitations could be realized through autonomous cars.

Steve Mahan is 95% blind. Here he is purchasing a taco at a drive-thru. ‘Murica.

So, autonomous cars will free you up to get where you’re going faster, while you’re drunk and falling asleep, as your grandmother gets picked up by another car to come to your house, while the hardware you ordered at Home Depot gets delivered to your house by yet another car. If that’s not enough freedom for some of you, I can guess why:

The automobile is the ultimate American symbol of status and character. Taking away your car is like taking away a part of you.

Okay, I buy that. Just do me a favor though: stop reading this, look out into the street, and tell me the car you own is the ultimate expression of who you are. Of all the choices car manufacturers offer so that you can showcase your personality, be entertained, be pampered, be envied, overcompensate for your shortcomings and so forth, your spirit vehicle is a silver 2006 VW Jetta? Doubt it, bro.

The reality is that most of us will never take the leap to own anything less practical than a 2-door, let alone an orange car or a convertible, let alone a Ferrari or Bentley. What your car says most about you is, “I’m nobody.”

Admitting that, I have some great news. Because autonomous cars are shared, you can have any car you want, anytime, as long as you’re willing to splurge a bit. Showing up to your high school reunion in a Porsche will be no different than deciding you’re going to order the steak instead of the burger. How cool is that?! None of you reading this have ever driven a Lamborghini, I’m sure of it. But through the autonomous fleet, you’ll be able to do the next-best thing: ride in it, smell it, hear it, show up somewhere in it… and sure, maybe the cars will be somewhat different in an age where there is no longer a market for consumers to purchase them, but as long as there’s demand for the scenario I just played out, somebody will put a Lamborghiniesque vehicle on the roads at the price point that makes it financially viable.

On a more practical note, how many of you own SUVs or cars with AWD just because you’re worried about the six times a year that you’ll be driving through snow? Wouldn’t it be infinitely more fulfilling to have access to a convertible when it’s sunny out, a minivan when you have to take six kids to soccer (though the kids will just be able to take their own cars if they want), a luxury car when you’re going out on the town, and a more capable vehicle in bad weather? It’s going to be status, entertainment, utility and character on-demand. You’ll love it.

Of course, what good is status if everyone can have it? But fear not, those of you clinging to your perch atop the socio-economic ladder: the shared vehicle model works for you as well — maybe even better than ownership. Here’s why:

Currently, any middle manager can overextend themselves to lease a pre-owned Mercedes-Benz and fool most of society, despite the fact that they’re no more well off than the rest of us. That’s the “keeping up with the Joneses” effect — the pathetic consumerist grind that causes us to spend beyond our means, because we’re only seeing the products people own, and not their actual financial statements. You could be staring at someone with a much worse debt-to-income ratio, but the shiny toy they’re toting around makes you doubt how successful you are.

Ride-sharing will actually mitigate such behavior (and the ensuing whirlwind of self-doubt) for one core economic reason: it is significantly easier to talk yourself into one irrational purchase that is out of your financial bounds than it is to consistently make that decision every day. Such irrational decisions are exacerbated by that itch to be a “have” in a world of “have-nots”, along with the fuzzy math perpetuated by car ownership which dupes you into thinking you can afford something just because the monthly payment seems tolerable. Autonomous cars will clear that up, since the only price point you need to consider is price per minute — and better yet, the idea of rarity will go by the wayside, as everyone will be able to ride in a luxury vehicle at their whim. Will you splurge often? Sure. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. But over the long run, consumers will consistently select options that are more financially realistic because the math is staring them in the face and the sense of “achievement” in having a high-end car is no more.

This progression in consumer behavior means that luxury will be increasingly excessive. Unnecessary. Overkill. And that’s exactly what the 1% want it to be. We’ll know a rich guy when we see him because he’ll have ordered a car to be parked in his driveway overnight, despite the fact it means he’s paying 20 cents a minute for the 10 hours it’s just sitting there. Or because he’ll be schlepping around in a 7-seat SUV by himself because he set his trip to “do not share”. Or because he’s barreling past you on the highway thanks to paying a ton more per minute for the quicker trip. Or because when he gets out of a car, it just sits there rather than driving away to its next route, as he’s paid to have it wait for him. Or because when you get in a car with him, you notice there’s champagne sitting in the armrest, which he ordered to be delivered with the vehicle. Don’t fret, my C-level pretties… your megalomania will shine as blingy as ever.

So, that just leaves the most problematic “freedom” fighters: the people who actually, honest-to-goodness love to drive. People like me.

But the simplest answer is often the best, and answers don’t come simpler than this. If America takes away the ability to drive, what will you do? Why, you’ll invest in a chunk of land that can be made into a race track or off-road trail, and charge people to drive recreationally of course.

It’s quite an appealing compromise, considering most car enthusiasts do very little enthusiastic driving. Autonomous vehicles take care of the boring trips, freeing up your wallet and calendar to spend at a track or trail driving the relic you’ve towed in from your driveway, or simply renting a car owned by the facility. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never tasted the sweet freedom of a powerslide through the apex of a turn on a racing circuit. But with more of those popping up, and my everyday freedom to drive rescinded, it becomes quite an appealing option for Saturday afternoons.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll still have exciting opportunities to actually drive cars. Or do whatever it is we want to do with them…


“Autonomous cars will destroy tons of American jobs.” Boy, will they ever.

How many jobs would you like to bring back from the dead today my friend? Blacksmith? Town Crier? Alchemist? Powder Monkey? Technology creates complex jobs and destroys menial ones, pretty much as a rule. It’s kinda the point of technology, no? To make our lives easier so that we don’t have to struggle for survival? There must be a thousand different jobs that don’t exist today so that your life can be as comfortable and entitled as it is. Nobody seems to care until it’s their job on the line, and then all of a sudden it’s more about their struggle than a billion other people’s struggle.

I appreciate that the topic of “jobs” is a highly political one. I have my opinions, and you have yours. There are thousands of destinations on the internet where you can argue your little head off about it. Here is not that place; there’s nothing about autonomous cars that makes the argument unique. Your beef is with cultural progress in general, so get used to fighting that fight on a daily basis from here on out.


“But who is to blame when accidents happen? How do we judge the decisions of computers?” This is exactly the kind of obstacle we should not be worrying about. It’s not the job of revolutionary technology to tip-toe around the insurance industry. Vice versa folks. Otherwise, you subject yourself to stifled growth, and the economy suffers as a result. Also, it appears you’re new to this whole “artificial intelligence” game, because judging the decisions of machines has been questioned — and answered — for hundreds of years. Spoiler alert: turns out we’re afraid to judge ourselves.

BUT. I will entertain this question anyway.

There are three reasons why insurance exists: 1) accidents happen; 2) people don’t tell the whole story; 3) people can’t afford to manage the costs involved in accidents. In an autonomous car world, the obligation to pay for accidents should fall on the companies whose oversight caused the errors. And in that scenario: 1) fewer accidents will happen. Much fewer. 2) autonomous vehicles will have all relevant incident data logged, including the peripheral behavior of other entities during the accident. 3) Because so few accidents will happen, and because those accidents will be recorded to the degree that fault will be easy to assess, the companies who manage these fleets (car manufacturers, Google, the gubment, etc.) would find it more affordable to pay accident costs out of their own substantial pockets than to follow the more predictable path of providing some level of insurance to passengers.

Some rough math: let’s say there are 50,000 serious accidents from autonomous travel in a year (accidents wherein people are hurt… because anything less is just a repair expense for the vehicle operators.) If the average payout to individuals for serious medical/other costs is $200k (spitballing it here… anyone got a more accurate estimate?), that’s $10B/yr in accident payouts. The more traditional option would be to contribute to the insurance of 300+ million riders in the U.S. which, even if individuals were insured for a mere $33 each, is already more expensive. Of course, I welcome more legitimate analysis from anyone with a background in the industry… I know it’s a much richer tapestry than this, but in light of what the autonomous fleet could be, I find myself asking why.


“Where will we fit all these cars? And where will they all park? And where will they all get serviced?” Okay, so keeping in mind that we’re talking about a connected fleet of self-driving vehicles, and not just every American going out and buying their own autonomous car, the beauty is that we will have fewer cars and more space.

A study conducted by M.I.T. in Singapore revealed that the high-traffic island could drop its 800,000 vehicles down to about 300,000 with autonomous cars. Off-peak hours require even fewer vehicles. A somewhat sillier study proposed that the U.S. could drop its 250MM vehicles by 90%. Most other estimates are more aligned with the M.I.T. study, pegging us as needing somewhere around 20–33% of the vehicles we currently operate. That’s… a lot fewer cars. And as a result, a lot more space freed up.

But that’s not all: because the cars are self-driving and connected, they can occupy whatever space is most convenient when they actually are inactive. Literally, any space. Like in front of a fire hydrant. Or in all those empty handicapped spots. Or on the side of the highway. Or in the middle of the street, if that street has sparse traffic. The cars can move at a moment’s notice from the grid, so where they rest is of absolutely no concern. Unless they’re in your bedroom. That would be troubling.

Where to service them? Pfft, that’s the easiest answer of all. There’s already a nationwide network of facilities equipped to service vehicles. They’ll keep doing what they do. Maybe with better equipment and better-educated technicians, but otherwise it’s just another day at work. Car dealerships — who obviously would suffer from auto sales going extinct — would simply re-focus to be fueled by their service departments. Pro tip: this is already the case at many dealerships, as service is the last frontier of price-gouging. Many a dealer principal would be ecstatic to hear that his business model is going to shift from unpredictable cycles of 2% profit margins to a governed program that keeps all ten service bays full 7 days a week. That’s reason to celebrate.

As an aside, and possibly the most practical piece of advice I can provide in this article: do not purchase a new car. Traditional transportation isn’t safe, remember? If you find yourself kicking tires for a new ride over the next couple of years, do one of two things:

  1. Lease a car. Assume you have about 3–5 years before the market starts to become wary of the value of any non-autonomous vehicle. Leasing places a guarantee on what that car will be worth when your lease is up, which means you don’t have to worry about severe depreciation. And at some point, it will be quite severe. Avoid that liability.
  2. Buy an older, used car that has sentimental value. It’s a bit riskier, but look at it as your chance to be impractical for practical purposes. If we assume that collectibles (nostalgia-inducing, emotion-sparking vehicles) will be the only non-autonomous cars to have value once fleets start deploying to our cities, then it’s a legitimate financial instrument — albeit high-risk — to have something like a Mazda Miata, Porsche 911, or Jeep Wrangler in your driveway. Cars that ooze driving freedom may be the only ones to remain for folks like me who want to have something to drive when off the grid.

Possibilities


If you’ve gotten this far, it means I’ve either paid you to do so, or you’re genuinely psyched about what our future is going to look like. In either case, allow me to reward you with some lighter, more fantastical reading. Just a sample of what these cars may be able to do besides get us around efficiently.

Lots of companies are already connected to car data… what will they do with the information? How will they innovate to make the car itself a destination?

The public could invest directly in the infrastructure. If the estimates turn out to be correct, each autonomous car will be profitable — which makes it a viable instrument for investors. You could purchase an autonomous vehicle privately (a car you’d likely never see, unfortunately), and take in the net profits of public usage after the governing bodies get their cut (maintenance shops, state and federal taxes, data providers, etc.) The most directly-supported mass transportation model in the history of the world. Kudos.

Businesses could optimize their employees’ schedules. Imagine having access to employees’ bulk travel data: travel cost per employee, average travel time, geographic travel efficiency… and all of it paired up to the day’s meetings and agendas. With a few clicks of a supervisor’s mouse, hundreds of employees could be notified that they can work from home tomorrow because their routes in are going to be inefficient due to weather. Or, the entire staff could be placed on flex scheduling to optimize their travel time. Or, the business could line up luxury vehicles for client meetings at exactly the right time to save its employees some logistics headaches. Or, businesses could reward employees’ late nights by having free cars delivered to the office for anyone who goes home after 7. Or, autonomous cars could be the key to helping businesses and individuals quantify the cost-benefit of working from home, and thus, telecommuting could become the norm for most office jobs — no longer a perk reserved only for antisocial software engineering savants.

Autonomous vehicles could serve as the delivery boys for anything. Groceries carried by a small, purpose-built vehicle make home delivery a reality — the car rolls up to your house, and when you open the trunk, one of the dozen locked compartments containing packages opens up for you. Of course, trucks and larger vehicles could deliver you even larger items. Furniture could show up at your door for an extra $20, instead of some $100 white glove service. Businesses who want to aggressively pursue delivery revenue could pay into the grid to ensure they have the right kinds of vehicles at the ready for immediate action.

The vehicles could send power back to the grid. Who doesn’t love this?? The world is getting smarter every day about capturing the energy naturally expelled from people and machines, and returning that energy back to other parts of the system. Much like the previously mentioned Copenhagen Wheel turns your pedal power into electrical power, the cars, roads and maintenance areas used in autonomous fleets will be able to absorb energy and regenerate it for efficient use rather than letting it burn off. Oooh, maybe there could be a spin class happening on an autonomous bus which helps to power the bus itself? And the harder you spin, the less you pay for your bus trip? Feel the burn, baby.

Get this: Autonomous cars could act as a new first tier of public security. We’re definitely not there yet, but think about what these cars are doing every minute of every day: objectively observing the environment around them, with an unwavering eye for anomalies and potential danger. With a bit more granularity in their sensors, these cars could alert authorities and civil services of potential issues as they unfold — or maybe before an issue unfolds. A simple example: One vehicle moves to avoid an obstacle. After doing so, it pings the system to ask, “when was the last time a vehicle didn’t have to navigate this obstacle?”, and if the systems replies “4 hours ago”, the vehicle knows this is an obstacle that authorties might need to move, like a fallen tree branch. A more complex example: thermal sensors on the vehicles could identify a developing house fire as they pass by, likely before any flames become visible from the street. But the really interesting question is, will the cars know sexual assault when they see it? I’d bet my salary on it.

Oh, you didn’t think I’d forget about the naysayers, did you? The folks who would respond to this by crying foul about having their privacy violated a la “big brother”? That’s exactly my point. Such violations are already happening with malicious intent, courtesy of the people you elected. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand log too much data to record and archive. They just observe, report what they observe (without caring about the color of someone’s skin or the neighborhood they’re traveling in), and move on. Give me a car over a government agency as my big brother any day.


Epilogue


It would be a fitting straw that breaks the USA’s perception as a world-leading superpower for us to litigate and pontificate our way into obscurity 0ver the topic of autonomous cars while other countries adopt them. Our beloved America — the nation that exports politics and accounting tricks — is at risk of being dethroned by actual technological progress… and from what I can see, autonomous cars are that technology.

I can’t say I’ve researched much of what Baidu is doing in China on this topic, or what level of progress the private firms in the EU have made, but I do find myself pondering how valuable it would be for countries to work together on the technology and policy. I don’t look at it as a competition by any stretch, but I’m inclined to profess that the best way for the world to advance here is for everyone to push forward as fast as they can, and reconvene once actual data exists in real-world environments. To that end, I’m rooting for Google to get this thing done in my backyard… but my hat goes off to everyone around the globe evangelizing autonomous fleets.

Quote me on this: the first city to wholeheartedly replace its citizens’ cars with an autonomous vehicle fleet will experience such an immediate and drastic socio-economic improvement that the entire world will look to it for guidance. To say it will be the industrial revolution of the 21st century would be an injustice to its potential. The world’s brightest minds will flock to the city. Businesses will scramble to re-locate there. Funding from private and public research interests will pour in. Air will be cleaner. Sounds will be more pleasant. Residents will be safer and more vested in the city’s economy. Budgets will be better balanced. Socio-economic divides will erode. Acres of cold pavement will be repurposed into parks and leisure facilities. F’ing candy will fall from the sky. Did I cover everyone’s interests yet?

I’m moving to the first city that makes this a reality. You can do this, America.

P.S.: If you’ve written a formal rebuttal article to any argument I’ve made here, please let me know so that I can link to it. Also, if you feel there were any predictions I skimmed over which would benefit from being illustrated, let me know and I will attempt to draw up a visual. Thank you.