January 24, 2020

Self-Driving Cars: Would You Ever Get In One?


They are everywhere....cars with big bumps on top and festooned  with various sensors and antennas. The Phoenix area, and Chandler in particular, are major test sites for several companies who are testing self-driving cars. To have one pull up next to you always prompts a check to see if a human is in the front seat, ready to take over if the car goes rogue. 

So far, the answer is yes, someone is prepared to grab the wheel and stomp on the pedals if need be. A pedestrian was killed in nearby Tempe a few years ago by one of these vehicles when the human inside didn't react quickly enough. While the risks are real, I gather improvements in the ability of the car to avoid problems gets better as more data is collected. 

In the future, though, autonomous vehicles will wait for a call to pick up someone at a certain address and drive them to an appointment, or shopping, or the airport, all without a human present. For those who have turned in their driver's license, or are not comfortable navigating through heavy traffic or at night, a self-driving car could be an important addition to their lifestyle. Doctor visits or trips to the grocery store become possible.

Already companies like Amazon are experimenting with package deliveries by drone; robo-cars stropping in front of your home with your package are not that far behind. I imagine UPS and Fedex will see this as their future, too. The tens of thousands of drivers for these companies will find their jobs eliminated, joining the list of employment options replaced by robots and machines. 

You might ask, what about ride services like Uber or Lyft? It is already very easy to have someone perform those same functions, at a very reasonable price. That is true but some of us are not all that comfortable getting into a car driven by a stranger. There have been enough news stories about assaults or other issues to make the cautious among us hesitate. 

Many new cars have collision avoidance systems, self-braking sensors, and lane change alarms. If you can afford the upgrades I assume they can be helpful when the driver is distracted (a big no-no, but it happens!) or some other driver is not as attentive as he or she should be. 

Even so, at some point I am pretty sure the future will include a car with no steering wheel or pedals. We will input our ultimate destination and off we go. Experts predict this reality is a decade away, but it is coming. There are too many billions of dollars already invested to not make this scenario happen. In theory, drunk driving accidents or all the other ways we hurt and kill each other with 3,000 pound vehicles will be largely eliminated. I imagine auto insurance rates would plummet if computers eliminated most fender-benders or preventable accidents.

It is likely I will have to stop driving sometime in the next 12-15 years. My dad made it to 88, but he drove a few years more than was prudent. I hope I know when it is time to turn those duties over to others.

If the timetable of autonomous vehicles is within the next decade, then it is quite possible I will be a customer. At that point, it would likely be safer for me and everyone else on the road, if a computer made the important decisions. 




So, that raises an interesting question: do you think you would ever be comfortable getting into a vehicle without an "emergency" human inside? 

Can you see yourself summoning a car, waiting for it to pull up in front of your home, getting inside, saying whatever the magic words are to get it to start moving, and hope it arrives where you want to go? 

Do you think you (and everyone else) will be willing to turn over this very basic adult chore to a machine? Will we have a choice?

41 comments:

  1. I think those who fear it have a lack of vision and imagination. I'm looking forward to the day (may it come in my lifetime) that I can hop in my car in Virginia, lie down to sleep, and, 10 hours or so later, wake up in Florida. Safety-wise, self-driving cars are going to be a whole lot safer than the current situation. I see people driving while texting or fielding voice calls on their phones. There is drunk driving, sleep-deprived driving and driving while a teenager. I'm confident that self-driving cars will do much better in general.

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    1. I agree. When the technology is perfected being in a car will become much safer than it is today. Removing the human factor will eliminate most of the reasons for auto accidents and deaths. While this scenario is still quite aways into the future, it is coming.

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  2. Yesterday we took a detailed look at a driverless pod being trialled on a private estate, to see if it can be developed for use on public roads. They are already in use running along “straight corridors” at Heathrow and the odd tourist attraction/ shopping mall. Talking to one of the engineers, they are still a long way off getting this one right for ordinary roads, especially as it has no internal controls with everything at present being done with settings and a joystick on an iPad and more importantly being dependent on the vicinity of at least 4 satellites. The more I heard, the less convinced I was that I’d be getting into one anytime soon although the concept is brilliant and he stressed very much that they were looking at it as a potential solution for rural dwellers who, for whatever reason, cannot drive and need better local transport provision for essentials than expensive taxis and an infrequent rural bus service.

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    1. Most of the trams that run between terminals at American airports are remote-controlled; there are very rarely any problems that I am aware of. But, as you note, something like that is a very controlled environment.

      For those who can't drive, some day autonomous vehicles will become an important lifeline.

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  3. I can hardly wait for an affordable self driving car.

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  4. No way would I want to trust a driver-less car. But then I have trust issues with human drivers as well. I just know that computers---which I assume that's what those cars are, basically---can do quirky things at unexpected times. On the other hand, computers have taken people into space and back so I've got no doubts that by the 2100 driver-less cars will be the norm. I just don't want one or to be on the road next to one, especially here in Michigan where weather is a big factor in driving conditions compared to states where they don't get snow, ice, sleet and fog.

    And while we all like to think we'll have the cognitive abilities to program driver-less cars when we're in our 80s, chances are good we won't be. Case in point: How often do seniors, now, have to call a grand kid to program a remote or fix their frozen computer screens or teach them for the 20th times how to use their smart phones?

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    1. Excluding highly unusual situations like the 737 Max situation, computers have been handling virtually all duties in airplanes for the last dozen or so years; they are the safest form of transportation available.

      I would anticipate driverless cars will be built for all types of weather conditions. Winter weather is certainly dangerous and will need special attention. I have been driving an RV caught in 50 mph Santa Ana winds in southern California that were every bit as dangerous as black ice. My struggles with control were serious enough I pulled into a rest stop until things calmed down.

      You raise an interesting point: programming of these things. I am assuming the controls are preprogrammed to handle everything. The user would just have to input the destination, maybe by voice command. But, if even that is beyond someone's capabilities, then by all means, use another form of transportation.

      I am with you, though. Until all of this is perfected I don't want to be in front of, behind, or next to a car without a human ready to take over.

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    2. Having yelled at my Alexa a few times because she doesn't always understand me, I'd probably end up having my automated car take me some place I didn't want to go. LOL

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    3. I understand the concerns listed from Misadventures of Widowhood and probably would have shared them until recently, but the more I read about self-driving cars the more I am all for them. They will be prevalent LONG before 2100... my guess is that within 20 years or so, once they have really proven themselves, most cars and trucks on the road will be both electric and autonomous. As to concerns about weather, it is under bad conditions where I would trust the autonomous vehicles with all of their sensors and built-in AI technology much more than human drivers. For example, the latest technology allows these vehicles to "see" through fog, heavy rain and snow. There is no programming needed from the passengers, so no concerns there; the latest updates are downloaded directly to the vehicles on a regular basis. Electric cars, once the battery issues are finally solved, will be much cheaper to run and maintain, and the low center of gravity provides better stability. Combine that with the safety of non-human drivers, I would forsee that insurance costs will plummet. Folks, this is a technology wave that will hit us before we can imagine! My neighbor should be receiving his new Tesla Model Y self-driving car soon, and he has offered to have be along for a ride. Can't wait!

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    4. To be honest, I am most worried about massive 18-wheel trucks hurtling down the Interstate with no driver on board. These things are capable of huge amounts of destruction. But, I remind myself that a human may be at the wheel near the end of a 12 hour shift and is so fatigued that his/her reactions are poor. In that case, a computer that never gets tired would be a much safer alternative.

      I agree that self-driving everything is probably happening by the middle of this century.

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  5. Autonomous cars will be a lifesaver for aging boomers. There is a reasonable chance this single advance will allow many of us to remain independent for much longer. I am all for it. The driving public will not be so enthused. Wait till the statistics prove autonomous is much less likely to have a crash. The insurance rates for those that insist on driving will go through the roof.

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    1. I assume autonomous cars will be much less expensive to insure after a period of risk assessment proves them to be in fewer accidents. They are probably more expensive to fix but should stay relatively accident -free unless a human-driven car hits one.

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  6. It's only a matter of time before technology in the space of autonomous transportation becomes the exclusive norm for the majority of travel. We, as humans, like to have a feeling of control, and when we turn over traveling to automation, then we have a sense of a loss of control, however, the benefits of safer travel far outweighs the fear of loss of control I do believe. I for one am excited about the future of this technology and once many of the early implementation quirks get worked out, I will feel comfortable enough to relinquish my driving responsibilities to automation.

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    1. I am there, too, Dan. I am not sure they will be readily available and reliable in my life time, but I know my daughters and grandkids will lose the ability to parallel park on their own!

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    2. I lost my ability to parallel park years ago. LOL

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  7. This is what I worry about with advancing technology......

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bG2JJw6S0AE

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. Unfortunately, hackers can already break into some car computer systems. This will be a major new opportunity for bad people to mess with our lives.

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  8. I'm not sure how I feel yet. Like any new technology, I guess it will just be a matter of getting used to it. I drive an electric car and I imagine some people still have a hard time with that concept. I was hoping that new transportation alternatives would reduce traffic, but self-driving autos don't do much to help that. I am still holding out for transporter machines ala Star Trek.

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    1. You are right, self-driving cars won't cut traffic, but hopefully it will be managed better and more safely. Transporters? Not for me, thanks. I push enough wrong buttons on the TV remote. Heavens knows where I would send myself by mistake.

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  9. For those of us who live in rural areas without any public transit (not even taxis, Uber or Lyft), transportation is the greatest challenge to aging in place, and self-driving cars can look like an attractive solution. I have concerns, though, about the added congestion (and greenhouse gases?) this solution might entail. Recent research has shown that ride sharing has actually increased the congestion and emissions in urban areas as Uber and Lyft drivers cruise around waiting for their next fare. And I recently saw a commentary on local television that raised concerns about the problems of self-driving and human-driven vehicles sharing the road; it turns out those human drivers can be very impatient when behind a vehicle that never speeds and stops instead of gunning it at a yellow light.

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    1. You've identified a potential major problem I hadn't thought of...mixing self-driving and human-driven cars on the same roadway. Maybe there will have to be things like HOA lanes for autonomous vehicles, at least until they become the norm, or human drivers are no longer an option.

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  10. Being a bit of a control freak, I can't imagine handing over my life and limb to a driverless car. But never say never.

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    1. You may not have a choice at some point in the future. But, Americans in particular, are going to have a hard time giving up that sense of freedom. It will be very tough to have their cars pried from their "cold, dead fingers." No, hold it, that's guns.

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  11. Consider how much space is dedicated to parking in a typical city -- on the street, in parking lots, and in multistory garages. If autonomous vehicles on demand reduced the need to own and commute back and forth in your own car, much of that space would be freed up for pedestrians, in-town housing, maybe even urban gardens! I'll bet parking accounts for 10 to 20% of urban square footage.

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    1. Good point. For example, Seattle has 5 parking spaces for every household in the city. Your estimate of square footage may be conservative.

      Add in all the space in houses given to garages, and impact on our cities and even the size of housing could be dramatically affected.

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    2. Now there's a problem! If you take away my garage, where will I store all my "stuff?"

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  12. We plan on getting a self driving/electric car as soon as they are truly available- the word is five years. Environmentally they are top of the line. They will need much less weight (using less fuel). Since computers have been taking care of trim in the wind for years- I am sure it will be able to drive in a storm ( but maybe gas guzzling motor homes need to change anyway??)
    I can go to the market for many more years then my mother was able. I can see having one vertically parked at the park nearby and coming to get me when I car share. My daughter is thrilled. She hopes that it will be affordable in the next seven years- when her oldest begins to need transportation to college. He walks to school now- dodging teens driving too fast to make it to first hour. Can I afford it? It comes back to personal responsibility for the environment.... Our sinking fund is building.
    Those who worry about your car being taken over? That can happen now. There are multiple computer links in your car.If the computer goes down- you will stop unless you drive a totally environmentally unfriendly car of the 70's or below.
    The lack of accidents? I think of ALL of the people killed by texting, falling asleep, overcorrecting, and so many other "human error" things. There were 36,000 deaths in car crashes and almost 6,000pedestrians killed by car in 2018 in the US alone.
    Wasn't that Tempe death considered an accident since she crossed with her filled bike on a dark, non crosswalk street? I have been hit by a car- in a crosswalk- by a driver who was not paying attention. After all of the driving I have done I have thought, "I am a good driver, but my life depends on the person in the next car." You have no control over them.

    And for full disclosure- I drive a Mustang. Well broken in at 32 mpg, I love the Bumble Bee curves between New River and Sunset Point. Some of the most fun driving in the US. Three years ago I was a "never give up my driving". We have to make changed to save the earth.

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    1. Your summary of what is ahead is excellent. Yes, the Tempe death was an accident because of the pedestrian's behavior.

      RVs are getting smaller and more fuel efficient, but that is an industry that may not be around in 20 years.

      I like driving south on I-17 from Sunset Point..coasting all the way to Black Canyon City! Suddenly I am getting 40 mpg!

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  13. I think about self-driving vehicles every time I get in one of those driverless airport terminal shuttle trains. It's a more controlled environment than the open road but driverless all the same and the technology is progressing rapidly. Arizona is one thing but where I live I think the biggest problem driverless vehicles will need to overcome is during snow storms when roads are snow covered and lane markings or even road edges aren't clearly visible. I think we will get there but I believe general use of driverless vehicles on the open road is still more than a decade away.

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    1. You are probably right...driverless cars are likely to be at least a decade in the future. Of course, if we don't put more money into infrastructure the roads will be so bad nothing will be moving.

      I would think that the snow and covered lane markings you mention may be less of a problem for autonomous vehicles than human-driven ones. They will depend on electronics buried in the roads and/or satellite connections rather than visually trying to stay in one's lane. Of course, a bad storm means an interruption in satellite feeds. So, we will all break out our old cars of stay home until it has passed.

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    2. As far as I know, right now, the autonomous vehicles in testing as using visual cues like lane markings and not buried electronics. Buried electronics would solve a lot of problems but they are extremely expensive and of course 100% of roads would have to fitted with them. I think currently there is some use of detailed electronic GPS maps for plotting routes but maps are one thing and real roads can be different, say a diversion or other road blockage, I guess my point is there are still a lot of problems to be solved when you get into the nitty gritty of everyday driving. On the other hand, in good conditions on good roads with controlled traffic flow (imagine a sunny day on an interstate highway) autonomous vehicles pretty much work now.

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  14. The idea makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I never say never anymore. When I was new in the Bay Area and navigating my way around with Thomas Bros Map books, who could have envisioned I could tell my phone to find an address and just follow the prompts. There is just so much that technology has accomplished that I could never have imagined, that I can see how it would become the norm. And all the advantages mentioned in the comments above sound good, especially getting around independently as we age.

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    1. From a selfish point of view, I like the idea of still having a car even if I am mot actually driving it. The freedom is important to me.

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  15. I have mixed feelings. I expect I will be open to trying/using them. But I also love driving so I am not sure I would want to give that up, at least for a while.

    I am also not sure that drinking or sleeping and "driving" will ever be allowed. I guess we will see on that front.

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  16. I am not sure how my motorcycle would ever be an autonomous vehicle though ;)

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    1. In that case I think you are safe from it being replaced!

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  17. my key board is dying so we'll see how this works....i am a control freak when it comes to driving. i will only sit in the passenger seat with 3 people, have a million miles under my belt in cross country driving, drive my SUV a few miles over the speed limit and sometimes at close to ninely. i'm also the one bemoaning all the people who don't know how to zipper when they merge or only et in the left lane to pass. having said that, i will be oe of the first when such cars become truly safe and available, if of course that happens during my driving years. Any technology can be hacked and for those that don't have newer cars, they are basically a computer. i believe that they will be safer and more energy efficient, both very good things.

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    1. Your keyboard did pretty well!

      You are so right: any thing with a computer involved can be hacked: your Alexa speaker, WiFi door lock, and yes, any car made after 2015. It is one of the risks we take for convenience and an overall a huge increase in safety. I will not fear getting into one when they are common, tested, and readily available.

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  18. The metro system in Vancouver BC, skytrain, is a self-driving system. Skytrain was built in the 1980s, and I remember there was a lot of consternation about riding in a driverless train. But it has a very good safety record, as it turns out. Of course, running on tracks in an enclosed system is a little different than streets and highways with all their hazards.

    Jude

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    1. There was an automated tram system in Morgantown, West Virginia that went into operation in the early 70's to move students from one campus to another. When I lived there I used it and never had a problem. It is still functioning...pretty amazing. It must have been one of the first non-human systems in the country.

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