Driverless Cars: When the Internet Takes the Wheel
Autonomous cars are coming, and they will be the most important extension of the Internet since smartphones.
For those who are perpetually frustrated by the tech industry’s continued failure to live up to Hollywood-style depictions of the future, self-driving cars might seem about as likely as warp speed or time-traveling cyborgs. But unlike those other unfulfilled sci-fi promises, we have the technology necessary to make driverless cars a reality right now. In fact, fully automated vehicles are teetering on the edge of commercial viability.
As researchers around the globe continue to tinker with autonomous driving software, they’re also anticipating its potential impact. Handing the keys over to algorithms means our cars will, in effect, become an information technology. But unlike laptops and smartphones, connected cars will alter the world around us.
Inching Toward Inevitability
Aside from the very-much-in-beta fully automated vehicles (AVs) currently being road-tested by the likes of Google, technologies that allow cars to operate at least somewhat independently have been with us for years and, in some cases, decades.
In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a blueprint outlining how advanced forms of automation should be introduced to public roads. It included five levels of autonomy ranging from Level 0 (“No Automation”) to Level 4 (“Full Self-Driving Automation”).
Most cars on the road today are either Level 1 (the driver controls everything) or Level 2 (which incorporates newer bells and whistles like adaptive cruise control and automatic lane centering). Level 3 provides limited self-driving automation; drivers are still expected to commandeer navigation at some points along the journey. Once we reach Level 4, passengers just get in and say “Hey Siri, take me to grandma’s house.” That’s what Google is working on; its prototype has no steering wheel or pedals (video below), though the Little Tikes-esque AVs currently cruising California streets require them by law for now.
Before anything approaching Level 4 is let loose in the wild, though, a not-insubstantial number of legal, ethical, and technical issues need to be addressed — the sensors on Google’s cars, for example, reportedly still have trouble discerning between a bag blowing in the wind and a deer galloping into oncoming traffic. Still, it’s a good bet that most people reading this will see an autonomous car on a street near them in their lifetime.
Car makers including Tesla, Toyota, and Volvo have already promised to deliver fully autonomous vehicles by the end of this decade. The question is no longer, “Is it possible?” but rather, “How long until it’s available”?
“I see two kinds of scenarios,” says Professor Raj Rajkumar, the co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Collaborative Research Lab. “First is that I can see vehicles being deployed in restrictive scenarios where the road is clear of pedestrians and bicyclists, and the vehicle could stop only at designated places. People would get on or off from the vehicle at specific locations — just like a shuttle, for example. I can see that happening in two to three years’ time.”
Rajkumar also suggests that we might see a continued piecemeal introduction of features (for example, GM’s super cruise or Mercedes-Benz’s steering assist). This steady accretion, he says, can bring us to Level 4 automation in “about 10 years.”
“I think we are on the right trajectory. The technology has been demonstrated in relatively constrained situations — for example, in regions where there is no heavy rain or snow,” Rajkumar points out (though earlier this year, Ford started testing its autonomous vehicles in snow). “Then we have also had a bunch of recent incidents where the interactions between human drivers and self-driving vehicles are still being fleshed out.”
By “fleshed out,” Rajkumar was diplomatically alluding to a number of recent accidents involving AVs, which were mostly caused by the human-navigated vehicles sharing the road with them. Our interview took place a few weeks before the public learned about the NHTSA’s investigation into the first known fatality involving self-driving technology.
In that case, an early adopter placed a little too much faith in the semi-autonomous Autopilot feature on his Tesla Model S. He trusted that his car would be able to decipher between the brightly lit sky on the horizon and the white side of a tractor trailer running perpendicular across the highway. It was not.
Not to relegate a person’s death to a statistic, but history will probably view this accident as one awful step back before we take several gigantic leaps forward in regards to public safety. In contrast to much of the media frenzy surrounding the deadly accident, this incident reinforces the need for more automation on the roads, not less.
The Most Dangerous Thing You Do Every Day
Safety advocates, regulators, and the car industry are quick to point out that America’s roads are safer than at any point in history. Road deaths have been nearly halved over the past four decades — dropping from 53,000 in 1970 to 33,000 in 2014 — which is even more impressive when you consider the population has swelled by half, and we’ve tripled the number of miles driven annually.
While we’ve come a long way toward mitigating the carnage, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a stadium’s worth of people die each year on US roads (plus more than a million more around the world). Even if you’re the most attentive hands-at-ten-and-two driver, who always obeys the speed limit and never gets behind the wheel after imbibing even a sip, there’s a good chance some other driver sharing your stretch of road isn’t as responsible.
We could continue implementing partial solutions, such as seatbelt laws, crumple zones, and median barricades, or we could accept the underlying problem: humanity. The good news (from a public health perspective) is that humans are a problem that is easily correctable — technologically speaking.
Like any complex machine, AVs are not the result of a single technical breakthrough. Most current models incorporate several kinds of sensors (optical cameras, RADAR, LiDAR), which provide a steady stream of real-time data to increasingly “wise” algorithms. Specifically, AVs employ “machine learning” algorithms. Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence that allows computers to react to novel scenarios they weren’t specifically programmed to encounter (as no program could possibly anticipate every road eventuality).
“For the people who are experts in this area, they have all pretty much come to a consensus that no single sensing technology nor any single set of algorithms is sufficient to achieve the level of robustness that a human would drive at,” says Jim McBride, Ford’s senior technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “We use any information we can, and multiple algorithms running on that perception information to extract the most accurate picture of the world.”
There may be some warranted hesitation about handing high-speed life-or-death decisions over to machines. (Pop quiz: The drowsy driver to your right is drifting into your lane. Should you attempt to pass the SUV with a family of six on your left, or stop short and hope that 18-wheeler behind you slows down in time?) But an AV’s literally super-human awareness can potentially stop these close-call scenarios from even occurring.
When it comes to the ethics of autonomous decision making, “Our intention, because we have such great situational awareness, is to not get into these positions in the first place,” says McBride. “A lot of these difficult decisions are because people are inattentive or they don’t have a 360-degree view around them. We would encounter such situations far less frequently than a human would.”
The path to self-driving critical mass will probably be messy — but hopefully not deadly, especially as we enter the transitional time when the roads are shared by cars navigated by neurons and those by algorithms. To that end, there is a public-private effort to develop solutions such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication technologies that would theoretically prevent accidents like the one involving Tesla’s Autopilot. But more important, they’ll work in conjunction with an AV’s onboard tech to ensure it operates predictably, efficiently, and safely.
Beyond handing potentially consequential decisions to robots (and yes, AVs are robots), the very prospect of them infringing on our turf elicits a knee-jerk unease among many people. But history has shown that society inevitably learns to embrace the benefits of the non-sentient entities in its midst, be they faceless ATMs offering 24–7 convenience or the steely perfection of automated airport monorails that operate with little-to-no human oversight.
“The consumer acceptance is going to be like flipping a switch. I often hear things like ‘I don’t want the car driving for me,’ or ‘how can you trust a machine?’” says connected car expert and president and founder of the C3 Group, Doug Newcomb. “I trust a machine more than I trust a teenage driver or my 89-year-old dad or someone texting and driving. These sensors are doing one thing all the time: Looking at the road. The technology is here. There’s no doubt about it.”
The prospect of fewer deaths may be this technology’s most compelling raison d’etre, but it’s far from the only benefit. AVs will open the world to people who lack access to the analog road due to financial, medical, or legal prohibitions. Even for those with the means and ability, driverless technologies will completely revolutionize the way we get from A to B.
Waiting for the Un–Model T
A new housing development in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood recently made headlines for an unconventional offer it extended to prospective residents. The developers — in partnership with the app-based ridesharing company Uber — will pay tenants a monthly stipend of $100 if they agreed not to own a car. Uber, in turn, caps shared “Uber Pool” rides to and from public transportation hubs at $5.
The agreement is a win for residents who are comfortable with the tech-enabled, cosmopolitan lifestyle because it eliminates the hassles of car ownership. It’s a win from the developer’s point of view because it removes the need for land-ravenous, on-site parking. And Uber is always happy when fewer people are driving themselves. But this deal might also offer a glimpse of the self-driving world to come.
The decision to forgo car ownership lays waste to a longstanding pillar of the American Dream, but it’s one that more and more Americans are making, some enthusiastically so. A recent University of Michigan study found that the percentage of people with licenses has plummeted across nearly all age groups in recent decades, but especially among teens. In 2014, only 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds and 69 percent of 19-year-olds had a license; compare those figures to 1983, when those numbers were 46.2 percent and 87.3 percent, respectively.
The mythos of car ownership that was so fundamental to previous generations appears to have long since peaked, and shows no signs of slowing down. Millennials have come into adulthood knowing only financial and global instability, and have thus shied away from avoidable financial obligations. Thankfully, they (and the even more linked-in “Generation Z” behind them) are well versed in the tools that allow them to avoid these commitments via “the sharing economy.” This is a generational inclination that is attracting some hefty corporate bets from Silicon Valley to Detroit.
From the stony vantage point of a quarterly report, the least important ingredients in the ridesharing model are the carbon-based lifeforms with their hands on the wheel. Uber has repeatedly demonstrated that cultivating career-long relationships with its human drivers isn’t vital to its long-term goals. But recent investments may reveal the priorities the company does have for the future (certainly, by the time the IPO clock strikes midnight).
Despite the fact that Uber only recently flirted with profitability, it has poured a great deal of resources into self-driving R&D. A 2015 poaching spree decimated academic institutions by luring more than 50 researchers into the for-profit world. “Are we going to be part of the future or are we going to resist the future, like that taxi industry before us?” asked CEO Travis Kalanick asks. “For us, we’re a tech company, so we’ve said, let’s be part of that. It’s a super exciting place to be.”
Developing robo-taxis may indeed be a “super exciting place to be,” but it’s not a super lonely one. Rival ridesharer Lyft recently entered into a half-billion-dollar partnership with General Motors to develop its own self-driving fleet. In mid-July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk laid out Tesla’s plan for the next decade, which anticipates a fleet of autonomous taxis consisting of privately owned Teslas that can earn money for their owners when they aren’t using them (like while users are at work or sleeping). Back in May, Chinese ridesharing company Didi Chuxing (the “Uber of China) accepted a $1 billion investment from Apple before announcing in August that it would merge with Uber China.
“The car-sharing paradigm has very powerful financial incentives, and therefore I think this one of the biggest competitive forces pushing the technology forward,” explains Professor Rajkumar. “I think Uber is a great example. For every dollar that’s considered revenue, about 75 cents of that dollar goes back to the driver, the human driver. But if the human driver is no longer there, that 75 cents literally drops down to their bottom line. So that’s a very enormous incentive for Uber to try to make this technology happen sooner rather than later.”
Uber execs have been notably aggressive (as is its reputation) in their push to bring this technology to market. Uber will begin real-world tests of self-driving robo-taxis in Pittsburgh later this year via autonomous Volvo XC90s with humans in the driver’s seat.
Even that most iconic of American automakers, the Ford Motor Company, has transitioned from viewing vehicles solely as things that customers buy to a more fundamental role as things that get customers from point A to B. At this year’s CES, CEO Mark Fields announced Ford’s pivot towards technology-driven “transportation services,” including alternative models such as ridesharing, pay-by-mile rentals, and continued investments in self-driving tech. More recently, Fields tipped self-driving robo-taxis (without pedals and steering wheels) by 2021.
It’s clear why Big Auto would invest in this nascent field, but we shouldn’t understate the interest from Big Tech. Particularly, we need to consider the kinds of business plans Silicon Valley excels at, notably selling access to services, rather than a product that will provide those services. This might very well mean that the self-driving Model T — that first popular, affordable incarnation that brings this technology to The People — won’t be a thing you purchase in a dealer’s lot, as you would a new Tesla; it’ll be a service you subscribe to on your phone, like Netflix.
“You can imagine when this technology has become reliable, affordable, and so on, people living in dense, urban locations including city downtowns and such, the incentive to own a car would go down very rapidly,” explains Rajkumar. “If you’re living next to a metro, why do you need to have a car? An autonomous taxi would come to you any time you pick up the phone and press a button.”
If the future rolls out the way many are betting, the dream of owning a car might become the Blockbuster LLC of life goals.
As the first analog automobiles chugga-chugga-popped their way toward critical mass a century ago, the biggest impacts initially were on rural communities; in 1921, 75 percent of cars were registered in towns with fewer than 50,000 people. But the effects of the wheeled Internet will probably be most immediately felt in urban centers.
In crowded, desirable locales such as New York City and San Francisco, many residents already choose not to own a car. A communal self-driving taxi system would be a perfect accessory for this lifestyle choice. Not only would it reduce the number of privately owned cars in these areas, it would allow cities to free themselves of the often-wasteful infrastructures that come with analog cars.
In fact, it’s currently quite in vogue for cosmopolitan centers to pooh-pooh the idea of cars altogether. There are plans to ban all cars in the city centers of Oslo, Madrid, Brussels, Paris, Dublin, and Milan. Even New York City has placed “pedestrian plazas” smack dab in the middle of the tourist hell squeeze that is Times Square.
Automated vehicles would brilliantly complement high-density city centers by transporting human cargo to the edge of a car-free- or car-light zone before puttering off to pick up another customer or park and wait at a faraway lot. This would free up acres of valuable city space currently wasted on things like curbside parking and garages. The denser a city, the faster this transformation will likely take place.
“An expensive and congested downtown could really benefit from these new technologies. That’s where the land is clearly valuable,” says Dr. Kara Kockelman, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas who has led research how public ridesharing schemes using AVs might be implemented in the Austin, Texas metro area. “The price of parking is high. There’s not a lot of available space for parking, so people are going into underground lots and paying quite a lot.”
Parking is a huge resource-suck. Parking spaces — be it a metered spot on the side of the street or in a multi-story private garage — are little more than storage lockers for machines, which spend up to 95 percent of the time sitting idle. Once you remove parking (both the noun and the verb) from the equation, a city changes dramatically.
“An automated car might be able to actually go find a parking spot even outside the core of the city, so then these really prime sections of real estate could be redirected to something more useful,” explains Dr. Rajkumar. “One of the prominent headaches for city mayors is that roughly between 25 percent to a third of cars in downtown areas are just going round and round looking for a parking space. “
Removing curbside parking might allow streets to become wider (and perhaps compensate for the additional glut of AVs on the road), or the space could be reallocated for sidewalks or retail space, depending on a city’s priorities. The rethinking of public space would even open up beyond urban cores, since totally automated traffic can flow in closer formation, meaning that space along highways and major thoroughfares could be repurposed for other uses.
These changes will surely hit large cities first, but they will also become part of the greater transportation mix in less-populated regions as the model matures.
Road Trip Through the Internet
For those without access to the analog road, Level 4 AVs could prove transformative. The carless poor would have a rich new tapestry of transportation options that could supplement (or, in some instances, replace) infrastructure-heavy mass transit. Furthermore, AVs could open the world to the young and the very old who are prohibited from driving due to health or legal concerns, and would be an absolute game changer for the disabled.
For everyone, these technologies could extend our physical horizons by encouraging people to make more and longer road trips that they might otherwise forgo due to costs or hassle.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand that [AVs] could induce — they could create new reasons for travel,” says professor Kockelman. “People living further from their destination might start taking a lot of long-distance trips on the weekend that they used to avoid, because they required getting a ticket in advance, and airline tickets are expensive.”
(Somewhat ironically, this accessibility of movement might actually lead to more congestion on the road. It will be interesting to watch how the technology’s inherent digital precision compensates for the increased demand.)
AVs might also affect the decisions we make in our recreational lives. For starters, AVs would render “designated drivers” obsolete. If there were no more legal or operational ramifications, then “partaking” while out and about would surely increase. In fact, commuters might feel liberated to engage in all sorts of activities from which they now refrain. One researcher even cheekily suggested to The Toronto Sun that AVs inevitably lead to “a lot more sex in cars.”
Aside from new opportunities to engage with fellow passengers, newly idle hands (and eyes and ears and other sensory organs) will present an economic prospect that’s too good for the tech industry to pass up.
This is where Big Tech’s participation in the driverless project might become particularly relevant. Silicon Valley excels at wringing out every potentially monetizable data crumb from its users. Our emails, mobile data, and social media interactions are tirelessly monitored, quantified, and brought to market by faceless algorithms lurking underneath the Web’s polished exterior. On one hand, these invisible data monsters help provide useful personalized experiences (for instance, a Gmail bot might read your email confirming your upcoming flight and then provide you with the gate number before you get to the airport), but corporations also use this data to sell you stuff.
Once you enter the wheeled Internet, you will be a captive audience of ad bots that have access to a delicious new set of data, including your location (“Feeling sleepy? There’s a Starbucks just two blocks away!”); your destination (“There are three Starbucks near where you’re going!”); and probably your transportation history (“Only two more stamps and you can get a free latte at Starbucks!”). But they’ll also know what TV shows, books, or music you listen to while in transit (“You know what type of beverage might pair well with that movie?”).
All forms of the Internet (wheeled or otherwise) are gaining wild new abilities to quantify human behavior. Increasingly capable voice-activated UIs are becoming a preferred way to interact with our machines and will surely follow us into our Internet cars (in fact, that’s already happening with today’s infotainment systems). That means anything that happens to fall within the car’s “earshot” could potentially be plundered for data. Furthermore, emergent machine-vision technologies might even allow an AV to mine data points based on what any of its cameras see.
In the future, entering a car might be similar to going online today: You’ll be inundated with all manner of services, which run alongside easily ignorable ads and nano-targeted corporate messaging. Perhaps there will be a way to pay for a premium, ad-free experience or deploy the vehicle version of ad blockers.
For a glimpse of what this traveling ad market might look like, look no further than a giant set of billboards adjacent to a roundabout in a well-to-do part of London. Using vehicle recognition technology, the billboard serves up ads based on the car you’re driving. It’s easy to see how these ads might get even more creepily specific.
This all might sound kind of freaky to contemporary sensibilities, but if history is any indication, we will grow comfortable with self-imposed surveillance. Remember all the pearl clutching inspired by new concepts like “phone-cams” or the idea that (gasp) someone might perform a Google search on you? Hysteria followed by acceptance is a process through which all new technologies must pass.
I’m playing a bit of the “what if” game right now, but one potential silver lining is that this model could bring down the cost of transportation (think of all the free services you currently use in exchange for renting out your eyeballs and earholes to advertisers; hello, Facebook.) The economics still have yet to be established, but there might be a way to barter access to you for free rides — a transportation ecosystem built on the Gmail business model.
In the wee decades of the 20th century, the analog automobile ushered in changes that reshaped the nation’s literal (and figurative) landscape with industrial-powered efficiency.
For starters, public and legal infrastructures had to be wholly reimagined to accommodate brand-new concepts such as gas stations, traffic lights, public garages, speed limits, auto insurance, license plates, driveways, crosswalks, and miles of sprawling highway. The economy jettisoned jobs tied to the horse industry while welcoming entirely new sectors that included everything from auto repair to state police forces.
But the automobile’s most audacious act of transformation happened to our expectations. Once-insulated rural families now had access to the figurative town square while middle-class urbanites were freed to seek professional and recreational opportunities far from their home turf. Cars even accelerated the growth of a new in-between world known as suburbia, where cheaper land allowed working people to have coveted things like backyards and big homes.
The emerging technology prompted a global engineering race that swiftly evolved the car from a plaything of the wealthy into an indispensable ingredient of everyday life. Consider that in 1918, only one in 13 families owned a car; 11 years later, that rate soared to four out of five.
And now, in the wee decades of the 21st century, we stand at the precipice of another era-defining transportation shift. And just as it was 100 years ago, a similar global race is being run to bring it to the masses. Once self-driving technology becomes mainstream (and it will — the million-plus lives spared each year are well worth society’s price of admission), the effects on everything from our infrastructure to our collective psyche will be drastic and unforeseeable, just as they were a century ago.
It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.