Older blog entries for hypatia (starting at number 387)

Robot cars: why I’m both excited and worried

Maybe this is selection bias, but most people I know seem very underwhelmed by self-driving cars. I am whelmed! I hope it works out.

I should clarify, because I discovered when talking to my parents about this that the term “self-driving car” isn’t self-explanatory to everyone. To them, it meant something like “slightly better cruise control”, and seemed very unexciting. It may be clearer to say “robot car” or “robot taxi”. A self driving car is a car that does every driving task by itself. It decides on the route. It looks where it is going. It turns corners. It brakes. You could, at the end point of the development, lie on a bed asleep inside a car while it drives you where it’s going. It’s still not entirely clear (to me) that this is all feasible with likely technology, or that it will be legally acceptable, but it’s seeming more likely. After years of driving modified cars with added self-driving about, Google is making prototype cars for further development.

Incidentally, “robot car” is a lot easier to type than “self-driving cars”, so I’m going to adopt it for the rest of this entry.

Upsides of robot cars (why I’m excited)

Here’s what I envisage:

Less driving by humans (specifically, me). Most people who comment on cars love driving, which is why I suspect self-driving car discussions often spiral into “but driving is fun! no one will cede control over their favourite activity!” Well, I’m queuing up. It’s not that driving is never fun, but for me, but it’s frequently unfun, especially since it’s so often city driving. Most of the fun bits of driving could be replicated for me in dedicated arenas.

Time reclamation. I drove to Canberra on the Easter long weekend, got stuck in the worst traffic I’ve ever been in, and commented to my husband that my brain is somewhat over-powered to be spent deciding when to slightly and briefly depress an accelerator pedal. Less human time spent driving is more time spent reading, talking, composing, sleeping. Plus all kinds of hedonism.

Increased independence for ‘dependents’. Google’s publicity already talks about elderly people who have stopped driving. But I know other people who can’t drive. I live with two of them. They’re 4 months old, and 4 years old, respectively. The degree to which it is safe or healthy for children of those ages to be left to supervise themselves in robot cars is debatable, but by the time they’re say, 7? Sure, the car could drive them somewhere for fifteen minutes or half an hour. At 14 or 15? They can tell it where to go. (15 year olds can’t drive in NSW, but when I was 15, I was independently mobile on foot and on bike, and occasionally in planes, trains and taxis.)

Two other people I’ve personally known who can’t drive had a seizure disorder and limited vision respectively, and there are lots of medical and psychological reasons that limit or prohibit driving, many of which would be compatible with being sole passenger in a car.

Speaking of psychological reasons, while I believe I am a driver of roughly average ability now and I now don’t seem to find it more stressful than others do, I hated learning how to drive, was petrified, and was a frustrating and frightening student. If I had equal mobility without ever having gone through that, I would not have. (And I think neither would my husband, who didn’t learn to drive until I taught him.) I know quite a few people in this category, including some unable to use cars to this day.

More comfortable trips. The possibility of being driven around while lying down or in a comfortable chair or, for that matter, while standing or exercising or drinking with friends. (Although see ‘Humans as cargo’ below.)

Fewer cars. Cars that can come and pick you up should increase utilisation of cars, as in, there will be less cars total, and less empty cars at any given time. This diminishes the use of mined resources, and has a carbon impact (the manufacture of cars has a substantial carbon footprint).

Lighter cars. With a vastly improved safety profile (which I am taking as read, otherwise I think the whole project is null and void) the weight required for modern safety features in cars can be ditched.

Safer cars. This is an assumption, but really, they’re not going to launch at all if they aren’t significantly safer. So if it happens at all, deaths and injuries in road travel should fall to near zero if robot cars become ubiquitous.

Land reclamation. Fewer cars means being able to reclaim some of the very significant amount of private and public land use currently devoted to parking cars.

Potential significant fuel savings. Inefficient human driving presumably has some direct fuel cost. In addition, robot cars can spread their usage more evenly over different routes, further saving time and fuel. Diminished vehicle weight saves fuel.

Lifting of speed restrictions. Robot cars can’t overcome some physical difficulties here (non-linear increases in power consumption with speed, increased braking distances with speed) but they can overcome the human error that makes high speed driving dangerous. Trips should become somewhat faster with a high density of robot cars on the road.

Downsides of robot cars (or why I second-guess myself)

Here’s the tweet that inspired this entry:

The good news is, we're only about five years away from Exxon & GM trying to out-lobby Google. And that will be a brutal battle.

— Anil Dash (@anildash) May 28, 2014

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