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Autonomous cars and the law
December 14, 2012 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Can autonomous vehicles navigate the law? This year has been full of big news about the progress of self-driving cars. They are currently street legal in three states and Google says that on a given day, they have a dozen autonomous cars on the road. This August, they passed 300,000 driver-hours. In Spain this summer, Volvo drove a convoy of three cars through 200 kilometers of desert highway with just one driver and a police escort. Cadillac's newest models park themselves. The writing, one might think, is on the wall. But objects in the media may be farther off than they appear.
posted by modernnomad (83 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
They'd be better than a lot of Russian drivers, at least...
posted by kmz at 10:56 AM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This August, they passed 300,000 driver-hours.
It seems to me that they are still stuck at zero driver-hours, actually.
posted by Flunkie at 10:58 AM on December 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


Self-driving cars will never catch on unless they include an "IRRATIONALLY AGGRESSIVE DICKHEAD" mode.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:10 AM on December 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


I thought the biggest problem was that they actually obeyed the law, throwing everyone else off?
posted by Hactar at 11:16 AM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


IANAL, but the biggest problem is that there's no case law saying who is at fault when one of these cars kills someone. Well, that and no law-law either.
posted by GuyZero at 11:18 AM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


No disassemble Johnny 5!
posted by mrnutty at 11:20 AM on December 14, 2012


It seems to me that they are still stuck at zero driver-hours, actually.

Beware those divide-by-zero errors....
posted by dhartung at 11:30 AM on December 14, 2012


Autonomous vehicles will still make mistakes and kill people in the early years, probably a lot less than human controlled vehicles though. This may work as an argument when convincing regulators, but you can't defend yourself from a civil wrongful death lawsuits using the argument that statistically speaking the dead person's death was a reasonable trade-off.

Maybe some kind of parallel system will need to be developed to compensate victims of autonomous vehicle malfunctions, funded by a levy on vehicles and maybe from general taxation revenue. This could keep civil suits out of the court system and allow society in general (which benefits from the reduction in fatalities) to compensate the victims.

That system could also enforce standards and force manufacturers to share certain safety discoveries that are made as a result of these accidents.
posted by atrazine at 11:35 AM on December 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


IANAL, but the biggest problem is that there's no case law saying who is at fault when one of these cars kills someone. Well, that and no law-law either.

This is silly. How are cars different from any other product that can kill people? There are tons of product liability laws that try to determine blame, and whether that blame is on the developers or the users.
posted by GDWJRG at 11:36 AM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


States and municipalities are going to fight these tooth and nail - it will rip out traffic enforcement as a revenue source, and hence drive up local property and/or income taxes.

I'm OK with this myself:

- Traffic fines are a regressive tax. You will be pulled over more often, and suffer a greater amount of fines and fines for not paying the fines on time and fines for not paying those on time, if you're poor.

- Traffic enforcement is often used to harass and unjustly imprison the poor or minorities, usually for drug possession offenses unrelated to the (often imaginary) traffic violation that the officers pulled them over for in the first place.

- Self driving cars remove "macho" high-performance considerations from car buying. If you're not driving, and the car is going the speed limit at all times, anyway, the primary considerations are comfort, utility and fuel efficiency, depending on what you're buying the car for. Pulling a trailer? It will be cheaper to buy a driverless tractor that can follow your much more comfortable car to the boat ramp than it will be to buy a full-size SUV for everyday driving. So cars will become much lighter, as that's more fuel efficient, which means roads will need repair less often. Fuel will become a much smaller part of the household budget, which means taxes on gas consumption, another regressive tax, will decrease.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:39 AM on December 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


Cadillac's newest models park themselves.

Based on what I've actually seen of Cadillac drivers just in the past few months, they need the ability to pull out themselves as well: I've never seen anything to match Cadillac owners for bashing cars front and back when pulling out, no matter how much room they have. At this point I think all Caddies should be full-time self-drivng, with no manual controls, because the only people still buying them in 2012 really shouldn't have a license.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:42 AM on December 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


You wonder how long it will take before people who drive for a living are out of jobs? In ten or twenty years will the professions of taxi driver or truck driver exist?
posted by octothorpe at 11:47 AM on December 14, 2012


"When someone invents self driving cars, we will invent the drinking game for those cars." --Ze Frank
posted by poe at 11:48 AM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


atrazine: That's the best solution to the liability issues I could come up with, too. But in the current cultural/political climate it's hard to see people agreeing to any scheme that requires everyone to pay for the benefit of only a few.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:11 PM on December 14, 2012


This is silly. How are cars different from any other product that can kill people? There are tons of product liability laws that try to determine blame, and whether that blame is on the developers or the users.

Car accidents are routine and current state law may require that one party in an accident be designated as at-fault. And there are all sorts of economic consequences of that at-fault determination. It's going to be tricky to throw a third-party into the mix. Nowadays, determining liability for most car accidents doesn't involve the car manufacturer or other third-parties. This tech potentially creates all sorts of disruptions to well-established legal processes and the auto insurance business. With as much money as there is at stake, it's not going to be easy to untangle the mess.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2012


I look forward to more all-night car chases, like in The Blues Brothers.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2012


You wonder how long it will take before people who drive for a living are out of jobs? In ten or twenty years will the professions of taxi driver or truck driver exist?

Taxi drivers and chauffeurs are toast. Delivery vehicles will require someone to, you know, deliver what the vehicle drove to the location with. Busses and trucks will require someone to monitor and chaperone the cargo, tho they won't drive anymore... long haul truck drivers in particular will instead be trained as mechanics rather than drivers, and there may be one of them for a convoy of four or five vehicles.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:19 PM on December 14, 2012


I was joking with someone today about how exactly Google can be sure its flawless performance record with this tech isn't due to other drivers on the road compensating for their self-driving car's erratic driving style... Maybe everyone on the road who sees one of their cars coming can tell something's wrong by the robotic way it's driving and drives super-defensively until it passes. Are their tests controlling for those kinds of effects? I would love to see this tech work and take off, but there's still a lot to be ironed out before people will be willing to adopt it. And I'd be interested to see if any unique problems emerge when lots of these self-driving cars are let loose on the road at the same time.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:23 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I still think self-driving, autonomous vehicles are a logistical nightmare given the number of different manufacturers, models, types (sedan, SUV, truck, etc), and roads involved. How can you even test how such a complicated system will behave?

If a dozen different vehicles with different AIs manufactured by different companies all converge upon an abnormal rotary, intersection, or deer in the road, what happens?

( We know what happens with humans, but autonomous vehicles aren't even humans )
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:28 PM on December 14, 2012


Are their tests controlling for those kinds of effects?

There's always someone in the car, just not actively driving (though they can take over at any time). I suspect they would have noticed if that were a significant issue.
posted by jedicus at 12:33 PM on December 14, 2012


Have they ever put, say, 50 of these cars on a test track and watched how they responded to each other in different real-life driving scenarios? There might be errors in their navigation logic that only show up as an emergent property when lots of these self-driving systems interact.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:41 PM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


As someone who enjoys driving (mostly), I welcome self-driving cars for those who don't. (And actually, for some who do, but do so badly--a category I of course am not in, by definition.)
posted by maxwelton at 12:41 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would expect the first widespread use of autonomous cars will be on major highways, where an "express lane" might be reserved for autonomous vehicles with a higher speed limit.

If the technology can develop to be robust enough (and I've gotta be honest, I am totally blown away by how far the Google approach has gone in such a short period of time so I expect it will), then I don't actually doubt that the necessary regulatory changes will be made. I posted the article not because I agree with it, but rather because I find it a fascinating topic. The rise of autonomous vehicles could fundamentally reshape the typical North American city.
posted by modernnomad at 12:43 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's hard to see people agreeing to any scheme that requires everyone to pay for the benefit of only a few.

Isn't that effectively what we've already done by making car insurance mandatory? Seems to me that insurance is the solution here too. I expect that self-driving car liability insurance will be much cheaper than human-driver liability insurance, simply because the likelihood of a crash is so much lower.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fair points, Mars Saxman, but we recently tried to make health insurance mandatory and it almost sparked violence, so the times have changed a bit.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:02 PM on December 14, 2012


Agree with Mars Saxman - the entire concept of insurance is pooling risk with the financial benefit going to the few who must draw on the pool. If autonomous vehicles can prove themselves to be safer than 'normal' vehicles (though we must assume that for the forseeable future all autonomous vehicles would in fact be 'hybrid' models where the self-driving system could be engaged/disengaged by the driver), then insurance rates might actually drop.

The biggest stumbling block will be perception of safety. The same way that some people are absolutely terrified of flying even though it is statistically FAR safer than driving, any fatalities in autonomous vehicles might doom the whole project, because everyone would think "well I'm a better driver than the average person so why put my life in the hand of a computer?"

I'm not sure how you get around that stumbling block, because I assume they would need widespread adoption for the economies of scale to work.
posted by modernnomad at 1:04 PM on December 14, 2012


I'm not sure how you get around that stumbling block

I could drive... or I could watch "Community" re-runs on the in-car TV on my way to the mall.

I could drive... or I could crack open a beer on the way to the game.

I could drive... or I could sleep through my entire commute.

Vanity and pride is no match for laziness and self-indulgence.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:14 PM on December 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


Car insurance is already mandatory though. In Europe some vehicles come with insurance; this is an obvious way for Google to crack open the self drive car market. They could partner with a manufacturer and offer insurance as part of a lease. If the vehicles were lease only they could control the distribution like GM did with the EV1.

octothorpe writes "You wonder how long it will take before people who drive for a living are out of jobs? In ten or twenty years will the professions of taxi driver or truck driver exist?"

Some taxi drivers will still be around to serve people who need assistance loading and unloading. But I imagine that will be a small percentage. Truck drivers will still be around because you need someone to shepard the cargo both in transit and at both ends plus perform operations like refueling; preventive maintenance (brake adjustment) and chain up. Like Slap*Happy said the job would morph to mechanic/overseer. However there are some point to point routes where the truck is loaded at a warehouse and unloaded at a warehouse that could be completely autonomous. Also probably most of the containers you see on roads rather than rails.

RonButNotStupid writes "I still think self-driving, autonomous vehicles are a logistical nightmare given the number of different manufacturers, models, types (sedan, SUV, truck, etc), and roads involved. How can you even test how such a complicated system will behave?"

Incrementally. Both the limited access special lane and particular communities are good starting points. Autonomous minivans serving a retirement community as a point to point transit system would be a good test.
posted by Mitheral at 1:16 PM on December 14, 2012


I actively despise driving, and I would pay a 50% premium for the autonomous version of a car over an otherwise-identical traditional model.

Car manufacturers are aware of this, I suspect.

Autonomous vehicles will happen. Individual cities & states may try to prevent them, but they'll happen somewhere and that will force the hand of everywhere else over time.

...but I also suspect that many of the more scaredy-cat jurisdictions will require that the human "driver" must still pay attention and must not be drunk etc. That way if the car kills someone, we'll just blame the human behind the wheel since they could potentially have prevented the accident.
posted by aramaic at 1:46 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This analysis is completely wrong. Since the dawn of the industrial age, the law has done a very good job keeping up with technological innovation the market wants.

Government has been especially quick to sweep away impediments to making transportation more convenient, cheaper or faster, particularly when industry has a lot of investments to make and return on investment to reap. Paddle-wheel steamers, locomotive trains, automobiles, and planes all (would have) violated long lists of laws and enforceable customs, and created untold personal and property injury liability ... except that those laws were changed, customs abandoned, and lawsuits prohibited or dismissed, in very short order.

The incompatibility between self-driving and person-driven cars is less in magnitude than the incompatibility between cars and horse-drawn carts. The creative destruction of driver jobs is a lot less than the jobs lost in the move from passenger trains to planes.

Think about how fast technology that no one really needs, never even knew they wanted, and doesn't really make their life measurably better, has been adopted in the past 15 years, and how far along it is in superseding prior technologies. Now compare this to the incremental productivity and comfort of self-driving cars, and the huge economic opportunity which would be converting 50 million cars to the systems over the course of half a dozen years.

The real challenge is getting the technology actually read for prime time, because it is hard.
posted by MattD at 1:54 PM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Agree with Mars Saxman - the entire concept of insurance is pooling risk with the financial benefit going to the few who must draw on the pool.

I've done a fair bit of work in insurance (on the regulatory side) and while this all sounds simple, the way the sausage is made is so much uglier and involves so much litigation to settle matters of liability. In Florida, for example, we have hardly any home insurance providers left because no one thinks they can make money in the market (due to the frequency of catastrophic weather events). We're currently having serious issues in this area. The only really good solution would be risk pooling at the national level, but no one is willing to do that because that would require people in less catastrophe prone states to carry the load.

Also, what car insurer is going to want to write policies in which their drivers are always at fault and the liability is always on their side? Because you know, most court aren't going to want to put the blame on the human driver in one of these crashes, regardless of the reality. And which insurer pays in an self-driving car on self-driving car accident? The two sides would be tied up in court forever trying to avoid paying. Unless there are new regulations and a system such as atrazine described to clarify things, I predict much confusion and lots of expensive litigation at the start.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:55 PM on December 14, 2012


Incrementally. Both the limited access special lane and particular communities are good starting points.

This invites another set of legal problems involving fairness because not everyone will be able to purchase an autonomous vehicle right way. Do human drivers get to share these special lanes, or will they just become privileged lanes for the wealthy?

And if you're going to set aside an entire lane for autonomous vehicles, why not just roll out more mass transit?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:55 PM on December 14, 2012


And if you're going to set aside an entire lane for autonomous vehicles, why not just roll out more mass transit?


Need not be an either/or. Much as I am a fan of mass transit and take it daily, the reality is that a lot of North American communities do not have the density to support regular, cheap mass transit that actually goes where people want to go. Autonomous vehicles that can support fuel efficient and rapid "train mode" on highways might be a great way to bridge the gap.
posted by modernnomad at 2:15 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The legal fairness thing isn't a problem; I'm thinking about the states that allow electric vehicles in HOV lanes regardless of number of occupants. Or the lane discrimination enforced on heavy trucks. Or heck even toll roads and bridges discriminate against the poor.

The setting aside would be temporary; once the cars have been proven you'd allow mixing with the non-autonomous traffic.
posted by Mitheral at 2:23 PM on December 14, 2012


and I would pay a 50% premium for the autonomous version of a car over an otherwise-identical traditional model. Car manufacturers are aware of this, I suspect.

You know who else says a version of this? The bane of the car message boards, the fan of European, rear wheel drive manual diesel station wagons - who all post some version of "I currently drive a 1998 4 cyl Camry, but I'd buy an E-Class Mercedes if only it was offered in diesel with a manual." When the manufacturer introduces a like model, fanbois rejoice............ and the model goes mostly unsold.

My guess is that the media and fans will clamor for autonomous vehicles, which then go on sale to great acclaim only to gather dust.
posted by lstanley at 2:38 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Autonomous vehicles will happen. Individual cities & states may try to prevent them, but they'll happen somewhere and that will force the hand of everywhere else over time.
I think this pretty much sums it up. If we can build reliable, safe self driving cars (something that Google has already shown we're very close to doing), the complete advantage they have over the person-driven variety will win out. It only needs a friendly jurisdiction somewhere in the world to allow them for the technology to be proven, and once it's proven the pressure to allow it will easily push down any barriers.

Fundamentally, self driving cars would improve the lives of millions upon millions of wealthy commuters. That is the kind of force that drives laws.
posted by leo_r at 2:49 PM on December 14, 2012


In the early automobile era, the biggest challenge to overcome wasn't technological, but social. It involved convincing people that they were responsible for keeping their kids off the streets, rather than the older understanding that vehicle drivers were responsible for not killing kids.

I think the most interesting development will concern the use of public space. If a car can be sent away to some empty lot instead of having to spend 14 hours a day within 50 feet of your residence, can that space be repurposed, and if so, to what? If automated cars are indeed perfectly safe, does that mean kids will be allowed to go on bike rides and play sports in the street? Or, on the flip side, if automated cars can be operated by kids and the elderly, will this be the justification to ban pedestrians and bicyclists from streets entirely, in the interest of allowing continuous 60 mph travel on every road?

toll roads and bridges discriminate against the poor.

If toll roads discriminate against the poor, then so do all limited-access roads, since not everyone can afford to operate a car.
posted by alexei at 3:05 PM on December 14, 2012


Since we are all making predictions, here is mine: Someone will look at the technology and the legal situation and off an "autonomous" car that really doesn't do much more than park itself, regulate cruise control, and do assisted corners and lane changes on the highway including active prompts to let you take the off ramp. The driver will still be expected to remain entirely alert through the entire process. It will cost a lot and folks will hate it because it actually makes driving even more dull and dreary. Folks will decide they don't want autonomous cars. A few years later someone will roll out the real thing as a low cost compact commuter and everyone will be shocked when it becomes the best selling vehicle model ever.

I remember seeing early testing on this technology over twenty years ago, and it was impressive even then. I suspect this will be some of the most heavily vetted safety technology ever when it hits the market.
posted by meinvt at 3:19 PM on December 14, 2012


meinvt: what do you mean by "the real thing"?
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:22 PM on December 14, 2012


Also true. Owning a car in the first place is expensive which is one of the reasons poor people don't tend to live in suburbs.

meinvt writes "A few years later someone will roll out the real thing as a low cost compact commuter and everyone will be shocked when it becomes the best selling vehicle model ever."

Look for the Apple iCar to "revolutionize" the auto-drive market while all the companies that put the sweat into early development walk away with bupkis.
posted by Mitheral at 3:22 PM on December 14, 2012


If a dozen different vehicles with different AIs manufactured by different companies all converge upon an abnormal rotary, intersection, or deer in the road, what happens?

Have they ever put, say, 50 of these cars on a test track and watched how they responded to each other in different real-life driving scenarios? There might be errors in their navigation logic that only show up as an emergent property when lots of these self-driving systems interact.

I have seen this at the DARPA Urban Challenge: 11 autonomous vehicles plus 11 chase cars with human drivers, all driving in traffic, negotiating intersections & stop signs, merging and passing.

MIT's car "Talos" car and Cornell's car "Skynet" collided in one of the first-ever collisions between autonomous vehicles. This article from the Journal of Field Robotics, "The MIT–Cornell Collision and Why It Happened" has lots of details on the crash, but basically what happened was that one vehicle's actions confused another, causing a low-speed collision while passing.
posted by jjwiseman at 3:28 PM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Self driving cars remove "macho" high-performance considerations from car buying. If you're not driving, and the car is going the speed limit at all times, anyway, the primary considerations are comfort, utility and fuel efficiency, depending on what you're buying the car for.

Then again, why buy the car in the first place? That way you have to store it and maintain it, and if it is damaged or stolen, that is your problem. My bet is that most people won't bother buying cars, and instead will subscribe to an automated car rental service that effectively works like a robot taxi service. A few will hold out and keep their sedans out of the sentimental attachment to having somewhere to leave their stuff and to adorn with bumper stickers, but that vestigial behaviour will die out within a generation. The only car owners will be the car buffs, the enthusiasts who build, maintain and drive their own vintage/art cars out of sheer eccentric love.
posted by acb at 3:30 PM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


One thing I worry about with autonomous cars is that while I'm certain they will be much safer and save thousands of human lives, I think they may result in a lot more miles driven, globally, and more fuel being burned.

They will certainly be able to drive in a more fuel-efficient manner than manned vehicles, but it seems like they'd significantly encourage more road trips. And once they get good enough (50 to 100 years, say), they may be capable of driving without even a human rider--in which case the global mileage driven will include miles driven while ferrying people as well as "empty" miles: imagine a couple with one car, where one person drives to work with the robocar at 8:30 AM, then the car drives home and takes the other person to work. You then have (miles from home to work A: with person) + (miles from work A to home: empty) + (miles from home to work B: with person).
posted by jjwiseman at 3:36 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't want to go all libertarian Rush fan here and start quoting "Red Barchetta," but driving is a pretty sacred thing to a lot of people. I myself am aware of the environmental impact and drive a fuel-efficient car, but there's something about just you and your car on a lonely highway, especially if you're lucky enough to live in the Western US.

They may become an option, but I don't think the US would ever accept a ban on person-driven cars.

Another issue is this: Does anyone think even for a second these robot-cars wouldn't remember every single place they took you? Does anyone believe Google or their equivalent wouldn't hold onto this information and make use of it? Would the companies that make the cars resist when the government asked to know exactly when and where "suspicious" person X drove? (I imagine they'd resist just about as much as the telecoms did.)

Imagine trying to ditch work or school only to find out your car has other ideas.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:54 PM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Autonomous cars will come, accident rates will drop to almost nothing, insurance for autonomous cars will be very cheap, and insurance for people who insist on driving the old-fashioned way will go wayyyy up. When an accident does happen, it will be the fault of the owner if the owner did something wrong (poor maintenance or vehicle misuse) or the manufacturer (poor design) or no one (shit happens).
posted by pracowity at 4:34 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I imagine they'd resist just about as much as the telecoms did.

Google already gives up user info to law enforcement without warrants/subpoenas. 90% of US requests are approved.

If they have NSA/FBI search bots in their data centers, it's still secret.
posted by morganw at 4:35 PM on December 14, 2012


As a cyclist, I look forward to this. Cars that stay the fuck out of the bike lane until they're 200 feet from an intersection where they're turning? Awesome.

I really wonder how good the sense & avoid logic can be, though. Will they avoid passing a cyclist with 2 feet to spare? What then? Can the "driver" ask for a lane change to give more room? I'm guessing the car won't drive half way out of a lane to get around an obstruction, but will want to do legal, complete lane changes.
posted by morganw at 4:47 PM on December 14, 2012


Autonomous individual cars should never actually take off, if our society has a lick of sense. It should be all self-driving electric trolleys and buses. I'm not convinced that there is a use case for automatically driving around 1-4 individuals at a time, but using it to spread mass transit much further and more economically would be excellent.
posted by graymouser at 5:49 PM on December 14, 2012


A self-driving bus would be a roving venue for muggings.
posted by nev at 6:36 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Human override will always be an option. It has to be. ( scenario follows after next point ).

A recent link from the guardian's data blog shows that deaths due to vehicle accidents are strongly tied to age. (in the first graph, change the right most selector box from "Overview" to "Transport Injuries").

People who die in their teens, 20s and 30s are much more likely to die of car accidents than older people.

If the act of driving itself were uniformly dangerous than we wouldn't see such a strong a correlation with death and age.

Since age is a factor I posit that behvior is the underlying cause. Would a reckless driver let an autonmous vehicle drive, or would they use the override as a defining characteristic of their ego?

I gladly welcome the tech and hope it saves many lives, forces slower driving overall and reduces emissions etc.

But it will not prevent the daily insanely high death toll on the roads. Only a complete ban on cars would do that.

Here's the the previously promised scenario which says human override must be allowed on autonomous vehicles. Sirens. What would an autonomous car do when it's approaching a green light and a siren is going off?

If the car is designed to ignore the siren and obey the green light it'll either be T-boned by an emergency vehicle, or if there are enough autonomous vehicles they'd completely obstruct the emergency vehicle.

Alternatively if the car is designed to stop when it hears a siren (or other warning device) well that's a recipe for a denial of service attack.
So you'd have to allow humans to override to an autonomous car. A human override implies reckless people who cause accidents will continue to do so presumably at the same rate as now.
posted by ecco at 6:42 PM on December 14, 2012


I could drive... or I could watch "Community" re-runs on the in-car TV on my way to the mall.

You just described my dystopian nightmare fantasy. Everyone atomized in their own private box, absorbing things passively through their screen as they are moved from home to work to the mall so that they can consume more. I'm sure Google loves what's coming: the opening of vasts amounts of your attention formerly taken up by driving. Now everyone will have lots of time to sit alone and stare at Google's ads on whatever media you are watching on your boring commute.

Sorry I can't get excited about the technology or hypothetical logistics of such a lame ass future.
posted by bradbane at 7:02 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


ecco makes a good point. This idea might work in a world with a better caliber of human being in it, but it doesn't seem workable to me in the world we've got now. I'm not happy about that conclusion, but unless we change who we are, all the way from deep down at the bottom of human culture to the very top, that's what we're stuck with. We're not willing to exchange driving the cars we've got now for driving slightly slower cars even if that might help prevent an ecological nightmare we've seen coming for nearly a half century. Why would we be willing to give up our Fahrvergnügen now? GM and other American car makers certainly don't seem to be betting on a more sensible future.
"I've talked to people who say 'I just put $100 in gas in my tank,'" he said. "[But] when I ask if they want to trade down to a smaller engine next time their response: 'Hell no.'"
But maybe today's news has just gotten me in a cynical frame of mind.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:02 PM on December 14, 2012


The real question is how much longer non-autonomous vehicles will remain legal. Probably a while, but I can't imagine a technology that has the capacity to save tens of thousands of lives per year in the US, and millions worldwide will remain illegal.

---
Speaking of energy use and driving though, Tesla unveiled their supercharger stations a couple months ago.

If you own a Tesla in California you can now fill up with electricity on major highways in just a half an hour, and they plan to cover the country in about a half an hour.

And, with each station they're building they're installing enough solar to cover all the charging year round.

And, charging will be free. So not only will you not have to pay $100 to fill up your tank, you won't need to pay a cent. Zero cost, zero carbon emissions. At least on long trips.
GM and other American car makers certainly don't seem to be betting on a more sensible future.
Last I checked, Tesla was an American manufacturer.
posted by delmoi at 7:34 PM on December 14, 2012



Here's the the previously promised scenario which says human override must be allowed on autonomous vehicles. Sirens. What would an autonomous car do when it's approaching a green light and a siren is going off?

If the car is designed to ignore the siren and obey the green light it'll either be T-boned by an emergency vehicle, or if there are enough autonomous vehicles they'd completely obstruct the emergency vehicle.
There are a couple of things wrong with this scenario.

1) Lights turn red when they detect emergency lights.

2) The cars can detect all the cars around them, they absolutely do not assume that other cars will follow the rules and won't go if it's not safe. They would be able to detect an emergency vehicle speeding towards an intersection - they could also detect a speeding car without sirens and not go through a green light if the car were driven by a drunk driver or just someone being inattentive.

3) People get hit driving through green lights all the time. It's actually much less likely that an autonomous vehicle would get into an accident. I actually heard second hand from someone who saw another driver pull into an intersection and get hit by an emergency vehicle. Except the lights for them were actually red and they decided to go anyway, not seeing the police car.
posted by delmoi at 7:41 PM on December 14, 2012


Autonomous vehicles will still make mistakes and kill people in the early years, probably a lot less than human controlled vehicles though. This may work as an argument when convincing regulators, but you can't defend yourself from a civil wrongful death lawsuits using the argument that statistically speaking the dead person's death was a reasonable trade-off.
I'm not sure why this is supposed to be such a huge stumbling block. When legislators write laws allowing autonomous vehicles, they can spell out the liability directly in those laws.
I was joking with someone today about how exactly Google can be sure its flawless performance record with this tech isn't due to other drivers on the road compensating for their self-driving car's erratic driving style... Maybe everyone on the road who sees one of their cars coming can tell something's wrong by the robotic way it's driving and drives super-defensively until it passes. Are their tests controlling for those kinds of effects? I would love to see this tech work and take off, but there's still a lot to be ironed out before people will be willing to adopt it. And I'd be interested to see if any unique problems emerge when lots of these self-driving cars are let loose on the road at the same time.
If a driver is paying close attention to the driving styles of other cars, they're probably not going to get into an accident at all. It's the people who aren't paying attention who cause them.
The biggest stumbling block will be perception of safety. The same way that some people are absolutely terrified of flying even though it is statistically FAR safer than driving, any fatalities in autonomous vehicles might doom the whole project, because everyone would think "well I'm a better driver than the average person so why put my life in the hand of a computer?"
So you can do something else, like text, surf the internet, watch movies, get work done, and so on? Why wouldn't people want to be chauffeured around by a robot most of the time?

I think, absent the whole 'falling out of the sky' aspect of flying, people won't be very afraid at all. They're not currently afraid to ride in a taxi, bus, or limo. If a person is afraid of flying, I don't think giving them the controls would comfort them all that much.
You just described my dystopian nightmare fantasy. ... Everyone atomized in their own private box, absorbing things passively through their screen as they are moved from home to work to the mall so that they can consume more. ... sit alone and stare at Google's ads on whatever media you are watching on your boring commute.
So currently all that stuff is already true, except people only listen to the radio and have to concentrate on a somewhat tedious and extremely dangerous task, where they can kill people or die if they fail - resulting in tens of thousands of death a year - But if you remove the death and destruction then it becomes a dystopian future? Because people can surf the internet? Which is what you're doing right now?

Also, Google's ads? Is there something about autonomous vehicles that you think will make adblock not work?
posted by delmoi at 8:01 PM on December 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Autonomous cars will come, accident rates will drop to almost nothing, insurance for autonomous cars will be very cheap, and insurance for people who insist on driving the old-fashioned way will go wayyyy up.

This. I've been trying to convince people of this future for a while, but they seem disinclined to take it seriously. But:
- insurance companies do actuarial data really well,
- that data will almost surely show a hugely reduced accident rate for autonomous vehicles, and
- insurance companies, being rational businesses, will reflect that in their pricing.

All the rest -- details of liability, cultural comfort, etc -- is just noise around the overwhelming economics of insurance. Absent some extreme circumstance, I don't see how it could possibly turn out otherwise.
posted by bjrubble at 10:52 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Oh my god, autonomous cars might get into accidents! What, accidents already happen, and at an astronomically higher rate than the autonomous cars get into? Who cares?"
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:24 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really cannot understand the opposition to autonomous cars. I've seen a lot of comments along the lines of "I'm such a great driver there is no way a robot can drive better than me" on other sites (usually with more misspellings), but that really isn't the point. There are lots of terrible drivers out there who do acknowledge that they are bad drivers and would love to have an autonomous car (my wife for instance - although she really isn't as bad of a driver as she thinks). Furthermore, consider the reduction in drunk driving. While I am sure that some drunks would manually override the system, I think that their drunkenness in combination with general laziness would lead most of them not to bother driving manually.

Anyway, I would pay a significant premium - say $10,000 - for a self driving car and I am not a person who is obsessed with the latest gadgets. This could represent a significant improve in the quality of life.
posted by nolnacs at 4:43 AM on December 15, 2012


Now, Smith asks the workshop, who gets sued?

Party with the deepest pockets, generally.
posted by flabdablet at 4:58 AM on December 15, 2012


most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they're right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

You know what really ticks me off? The way that guy I employ to run in front of me with the red flag can't sustain a faster pace than 20 km/h. I could cut my commute time in half if we could just do away with that rule.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read that as "Can autonomous vegetables navigate the streets" and did a double-take.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:43 AM on December 15, 2012


Autonomobiles.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2012


Autonomous cars just need to store all of their sensor data to a high capacity black box. Reading out the black box data after an accident will prove who or what is liable pretty unambiguously, and there need never be a "he said/she said" debate after an accident. In a few years time all of the sensor data, including cameras, that a car sees during its entire lifetime will fit onto an inexpensive SSD.

The civil liberties implications of every car recording everything it sees forever are obvious, but that's the price we pay for convenience.
posted by monotreme at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2012


With autonomous cars you can do scary intersection routing like this.
posted by Pyry at 10:57 AM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Exactly, Pyry. Once things get to that point, computers will drive cars in the same way they play chess: differently from the way humans do it. They won't need to pull over to a stop for an emergency vehicle, they'll just move over slightly to make a hole at exactly the right time, and that hole will be just in front of the ambulance/police/fire truck during its entire trip.

(Actually while that is possible it may take a while before things get to that point--you need well tested, robust algorithms for doing that when you can't guarantee that other vehicles will cooperate, with reasonable fallback behavior.)
posted by jjwiseman at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2012


monotreme why would you need more than a few minutes of history or at most the duration of the most current trip for an accident investigation?
posted by Mitheral at 11:48 AM on December 15, 2012


@mitheral: I agree that there's no need for more than a few minutes of data for accident investigation. However, in a few years time, terabytes of storage will cost pennies and the collected data has so many potential uses that companies and governments won't want to delete it.
posted by monotreme at 1:07 PM on December 15, 2012


With autonomous cars you can do scary intersection routing like this.

Where are the sidewalks?
posted by bradbane at 6:36 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sidewalks are not necessary. Simply occupy a lane, submit your request to the intersection controller using the standard AIM protocol applicable in your region and you will be routed accordingly.

You have ten seconds to comply.
posted by flabdablet at 9:46 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know, I've yet to see somebody talk about how dangerous self-driving cars would be in residential areas. Highway driving? No problem, everything's pretty straight-forward. But if you're driving in an area where kids are running around, where people are carelessly getting out of their cars, where pedestrians are illegally crossing the street -- you can't rely on a short-range sensor to tell you when to stop. A human can analyze the situation and slow down or change lanes from a considerable distance; a self-driving car cannot, and probably won't be able to for a long while.

I don't think fully self-driving cars have a future. A self-driving highway mode might be possible, though.
posted by archagon at 1:08 AM on December 16, 2012


archagon, I think that you are underestimating the technology and overestimating human driver's safety around other humans. Autonomous should be able to handle all those things better than human drivers in a few years.

A human can analyze the situation and slow down or change lanes from a considerable distance

Yea but they don't; they blast through 25 MPH zones at fifty while eating chicken nuggets, talking on the phone and smoking cigarettes. Some lady near me was hit by three vehicles and at least one the vehicles didn't even notice and kept going. It won't take much for robots to do a better job than that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:59 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way skeptics talk about autonomobiles reminds me of how skeptics talk about climate change; there's no end of "Well I bet you smarty-pants [scientists/engineers] didn't think about THAT, did ya?!" and it's really obnoxious and stupid.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:12 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Archagon, if you read up on how Google's cars work now, you'll see that they already have the ability to detect pedestrians illegally crossing streets.

Bear in mind that these are still prototypes - the technology will improve and get cheaper, just as has been the case with every technological innovation in the history of the world. We're really no longer asking "whether" autonomous vehicles are possible, but instead have moved on to wondering "when" they will be commonplace.
posted by modernnomad at 8:46 AM on December 16, 2012


Where are the sidewalks?

You could put in pedestrian walkways that either go under or over the roads as appropriate. If that doesn't work for the intersection in question then just keep it as a standard traffic light, perhaps with the ability to communicate with nearby cars so that people aren't waiting more than necessary.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:37 AM on December 16, 2012


> already have the ability to detect pedestrians illegally crossing streets

But they can't anticipate that a pedestrian on the side of the street will suddenly dart in front of them. To some extent they don't need to anticipate because they don't need to "guard" the brake pedal for a shorter reaction time and they don't need to stop playing with the radio, but there is a bit of situational awareness only available to human drivers.

> I've seen a lot of comments along the lines of "I'm such a great driver there is no way a robot can drive better than me"

For some values of better. If better means shorter travel time, laws and vulnerable road users be damned, then humans driving ungoverned cars are "better" than robots.

While changing lanes a lot in slow-and-go traffic on the freeway might not get you there much faster, on 40 MPH arterial with stoplights, cutting, speeding (60+) and running "late yellows" is significantly faster.
posted by morganw at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2012


morganw, why do you think that situational awareness is only available to humans? You can put 360 degree laser scanners & cameras & radar on cars, they potentially can have situational awareness that it is strictly impossible for humans to have.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:59 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


You could put in pedestrian walkways that either go under or over the roads as appropriate.

I have been kind of joking about this, but seriously, instead of remaking our cities and neighborhoods for robot cars, how about we do it the other way around and redesign them around actual people.

Then I can walk to the store and get on the (self driving!) train to go to work. Let the autonomobiles drive the delivery trucks.
posted by bradbane at 1:28 PM on December 16, 2012


how about we do it the other way around and redesign them around actual people.

Indeed. Charles Marohn, "recovering engineer", has been banging that drum for a couple of years now.

Watch that video carefully and try to consider every intersection in town like that, with autonomous cars zooming through in every direction. Before watching Marohn's critique I was actually enthused about the diverging diamond idea, but even though I'm an avid cyclist I hadn't thought through the complete streets concept.

Now, I don't think the autonomous car per se autonomous car is antithetical to a complete streets approach or better access for pedestrians and cyclists and the disabled. In fact I think it offers a lot of promise. I do not, however, think that imagining some sort of server-managed controlled chaos intersection is the way to go about doing this.
posted by dhartung at 5:02 PM on December 16, 2012


I'd way rather cycle on a street with autonomobiles than on a street full of people who may or may not thinking running cyclists off the road or tapping my rear wheel at an intersection or throwing shit at me is fucking hilarious.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:26 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The way skeptics talk about autonomobiles reminds me of how skeptics talk about climate change; there's no end of "Well I bet you smarty-pants [scientists/engineers] didn't think about THAT, did ya?!" and it's really obnoxious and stupid.

I don't know. I'm really irritated by the sudden onslaught of "Oh, self-driving cars are totes the future!" in the past few months, especially by people who know nothing about CS or AI. This is a nascent technology that's barely been tested, and I've been in plenty of situations on the road that required me to use my full cognitive abilities to avoid an accident. Color me skeptical.

And personally, I find it "obnoxious and stupid" how we rush to solve most of our problems through convoluted technological means rather than more difficult but ultimately more sustainable solutions. Industrial farming treating animals poorly? Vat-grown meat sounds good! Not enough oil to feed our industry? Punch a hole in the bottom of the ocean, why not? Instead of increasing road safety by building super-advanced robot cars, why don't we improve driver training or build better public transit? Do we really want to become even more of a commuter culture than we already are?
posted by archagon at 6:22 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


people who may or may not think running cyclists off the road or tapping my rear wheel at an intersection or throwing shit at me is fucking hilarious

plugins.autonomobile.mozilla.org
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The legal answer is very simple; you legislate a class of vehicles called "self-propelled vehicles", and that they:
"be accompanied by a crew of three: the driver, a stoker and a man with a red flag walking 60 yards (55 m) ahead of each vehicle. The man with a red flag or lantern enforced a walking pace, and warned horse riders and horse drawn traffic of the approach of a self propelled machine."
Been done before.
posted by the cydonian at 12:10 AM on December 17, 2012


As with any new tech I expect there will be resistance by a vocal minority but this is how I see autonomous vehicles implement themselves into our society:

First, naturally, it will be a high end luxury option with a hefty price tag and a monthly subscription (because my-oh-my companies love when you pay them for infinity!) to cover support, mapping updates (rather critical) and system maintenance. There will be news reports, car shows, lots of showing off and oh-my-gosh... it will work.

Next, the trucking and transportation industry will test it out and discover that even with premiums paid for the tech - and even if they still need a driver in there - that reduced costs from accidents and delayed or damaged deliveries will make this well worth it. Imagine the gains that walmart will see when their ~7,000 tractor trailer fleet can be reduced by even 10% because their drivers can sleep while the computer drives. If they are permitted to have a "convoy manager" and just have one well trained CDL driver with basic mechanical know-how and troubleshooting ability to take care of 3-4 tractor-trailers going in the same direction - we are talking big savings.

Now imagine these savings scaled up. Coca-Cola has around 17,000 trucks. AT&T? 78,000! Not every truck will likely go autonomous, but we are talking big numbers when you can have human drivers going for 24 hour hauls with computer assistance, reduced fuel consumption, reduced accident costs, increased reliability with deliveries, and likely *reduced* insurance costs (bare in mind many of these fleets are self-insured, so that is an immediate savings, not one they need to wait for as insurance companies build new formulas and tables).

So now shipping and luxury markets have heavy market penetration and shortly thereafter the rest will follow suit. Our energy dependence will be lessened, safety standards can be greatly reduced for cars that just don't crash, thousands of lives will be saved, and millions of hours of our time will be better utilized as people can nap, relax, or start work earlier while a magic silicon box handles the commute.

And I can't wait.
posted by cheesyburgercheese at 9:51 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


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