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:

Even ignoring the possibility of political decisions inhibiting my utopia above, I think there are significant potential downsides, some of which are likely, some of which are hard to model.

Job losses. At the driving end: taxi drivers, truck drivers, chauffeurs, public transport drivers. If less cars were manufactured, a huge number of jobs involved in manufacture, in supplying manufacturers, and in supplying and selling cars. It’s likely the cars will tend to have reduced wear and tear, so mechanics and their supply chains would be affected. If road wear-and-tear and fuel usage is reduced, people employed in road maintenance and in the massive fuel industry are affected. All raw materials and their supply chain are affected.

Which is all very well for me, I’m not in the transportation industry. But we as a society suck at dealing with the people who are made redundant by technological progress, and we’re not showing signs of getting better at it even as more and more work is threatened with redundancy.

Resources use and carbon output may rise. With the increased ability of people to use cars (by adding children and medically unfit drivers, and some unwilling drivers, to self-directed car users) comes the risk of additional aggregate kilometres travelled by car with negative consequences for carbon etc.

Shortened lifespan of existing cars. If there was a fairly fast transition at any point, human-operated cars then in existence become obsolete fairly rapidly, which is a resources and waste nightmare exceeding the flat-screen TV transition environmental disaster.

Longer commutes. While commuting might be less miserable per minute, it’s entirely possible that commensurate increases in hours spent commuting might occur (or be demanded by the workplace), which for most people is a negative because of less time spent with family and friends, and a rather insidious negative at that (people apparently underestimate how bad it is, because it’s regular, something I originally learned about in Big house, big commute?, together with the idea of the “triangle of happiness”).

Unpredictable and likely bad disruption of public (cheap) transport. I don’t personally much buy into the intrinsic virtues of contact with strangers while travelling. (The “public” in “public transport”.) I don’t mind if opportunities to talk to strangers — or ignore them studiously in order to compensate for being in each other’s personal space — are diminished. I do mind access issues though. I would assume that the movement of currently unfit or unwilling drivers into robot cars would diminish use of public transport and therefore its availability. At the same time, I assume that individual robot car use will not be universally affordable (if primarily offered by for-profit entities as is likely). There’s no guarantee that, with presumed middle-class flight to robot cars, any longer distance transport will be available matching current public transport prices and coverage.

Unpredictable and likely bad availability of robot cars for less privileged users. If the safety profile is good enough, we might be able to eliminate child restraints in their current form, but there’s no guarantee cars will be available to fit wheel users, large people (tall, fat or both, although tall is more likely because it’s a male-associated trait), and large family groups. There’s no guarantee that non-literate people, or visually impaired people, or people who don’t speak the local majority language, will be able to operate the user interfaces. (I’d bet against, in fact.)

Privacy and autonomy. These are under substantial threat. Consider existing cases. Car sharing schemes track your location on GPS. Speed cameras record all passing vehicles, not just speeding ones. (Such data has been used as evidence in criminal trials in NSW.) Many transport smart card agencies hand over individual usage data (where you got on and off public transport) upon request to police, without a warrant. Robot cars have potential for all these abuses, plus the ability for other people to take over control of the car you’re in.

Known unknowns

There’s also some intensely unpredictable things:

Unpredictable disruption of places where people congregate. I do consider the existence of spaces serving as, essentially, town squares or village greens, a positive, and just as private cars significantly changed their location and availability, robot cars would too. I don’t know how and to what effect.

Humans become cargo. This is already more or less true in aviation, and it hasn’t played out so comfortably, with comfort tending to diminish in return for cheaper seats. But flying is fuel intensive (and the distances sometimes simply ridiculous). So it’s difficult to work out what Sydney to Canberra or Sydney to Melbourne would look like and it depends partly on power costs. Would a vehicle drive me to Canberra on its own? Would it go and hitch itself to some kind of road-train? Would a pod containing me be loaded onto a truck? Would I board a robot bus but otherwise have more or less the current bus experience? What would the effects on fuel use be of various models? (See I Spent 28 Hours on a Bus. I Loved It.) What would rich people do? What would poor people do?

Cargo becomes atomised. Conversely, when is the preference for large cargo loads (B-double trucks, trains full of coal) partly an issue of needing a human operator? Would those loads split into smaller units to be delivered on an as needed basis? When and at what point in the delivery process?

Increased drug use. Maybe? One inhibiting factor on drug use (the need to drive home) will be lifted. I’m not anti-drug use as a matter of principle, so this is not necessarily a negative to me.

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