The problems with self-driving vehicles


Now that self-driving vehicles (SDVs) are becoming a reality, people are paying close attention to accident reports involving them. In almost all the cases, it appears that it was an error by the human in the other car that caused the accident. Here is a compilation of dash-cam videos taken from SDVs as they avoid accidents, some of which required quick reactions.



But are the statistics suggesting that SDVs are safer that human-driven vehicles reliable? Peter Hancock says that we should be wary of trusting those statistics because the methodology used to calculate accident rates has problems because we also need to measure non-collision rates as well in order to do a proper comparison and those are not easy to measure.

In a case where there was an accident, the interesting question raised by Srikanth Saripalli is why the SDV did not take the kind of evasive action that a human driver would have.

In Las Vegas, the self-driving shuttle noticed a truck up ahead was backing up, and stopped and waited for it to get out of the shuttle’s way. But the human truck driver didn’t see the shuttle, and kept backing up. As the truck got closer, the shuttle didn’t move – forward or back – so the truck grazed the shuttle’s front bumper.

As a researcher working on autonoous systems for the past decade, I find that this event raises a number of questions: Why didn’t the shuttle honk, or back up to avoid the approaching truck? Was stopping and not moving the safest procedure? If self-driving cars are to make the roads safer, the bigger question is: What should these vehicles do to reduce mishaps?

For reasons such as these, SDV’s will always be a work in progress and we cannot expect the vehicles to have all the answers right out of the gate. After all, the road rules and signs that we now have evolved over time to meet specific needs, as and when problems cropped up that needed addressing. We should expect the same developmental process with SDVs. As Abdesalam Soudi writes, “Driving can involve a range of social signals and unspoken rules, some of which vary by country – even by region or city. How will driverless cars be able to navigate this complexity? Can they ever be programmed to do so?” What will replace the eye contact and other gestures that we use without thinking?

For these and host of other reasons, Jack Barkenbus recommends that that SDV promoters not be too gung-ho. He says that people are not good at rationally evaluating risks and are also exceedingly wary about ceding human control to machines. Too early a roll out that results in highly-publicized accidents involving SDVs and the industry might receive a major public relations setback that will take a long time to recover from.

Another question is who will be the first adopters of the vehicles. What exactly will they be used for and by whom, especially in its early days when the general public would necessarily be apprehensive about adopting this new transportation technology?

The most obvious early adopters are likely to be businesses and governments. This is because although these vehicles have fancy sensing devices, they also depend upon maps to navigate their way and need up-to-date ones. Businesses and bus systems tend to operate on fixed routes and thus are more likely to know about local factors such as lane closings and construction. But how much can such an SDV function without an employee inside? If it is a delivery vehicle then it can get to the destination but what about the last step when the item has to be taken out of the vehicle and placed by the door or in the mailbox? Maybe the solution would be for the vehicle to alert the recipient that it has arrived and get them to come and collect it. But this would require the recipient to be there, which could be inconvenient. In the episode Crocodile in the most recent season of Black Mirror, a pizza company uses an SDV to deliver pizzas and people come outside to the vehicle and pay for it with a credit card and then get the pizza as it emerges from a slot. Having to go outside to get stuff could be seen as a nuisance, defeating part of the purpose of having them delivered. Perhaps the first users would be business-to-business deliveries where there is always someone there to collect stuff. As for buses and shuttle and taxi services, those might be easier to work with since people come to the buses anyway.

Clearly the largest market for SDVs would be regular people who would like the ability to do other things in their cars during their commutes. It might also reduce the need for families to have more than one car if the car could be sent back for others to use at different times of the day. But while this would reduce the numbers of cars sold, the actually number of cars on the road at any given time can increase and so will gas consumption. So that is not good.

As with all new technologies that have the potential to have a mass market, this will be a work in progress for a long time.

Comments

  1. says

    Another question is who will be the first adopters of the vehicles. What exactly will they be used for and by whom

    The first adopters will be capitalists, who are already salivating at being able to stop having to pay trucking charges; they’ll come up with some uber-like “last mile” delivery system and offer the formerly employed truckers a shit job doing the “last mile” as an alternative to starvation.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    The best comic book movie of the last 20 years, “Logan”, is set in a near future Where the titular character is a limo driver. Humans are detected as clearly mostly still driving small cars, but, plausibly, container lorries are shown as being not just driverless but in fact ta whether titular character is a limo driver. Humans are detected is clearly mostly still driving small cars, but, plausibly, container lorries are shown as being not just driverless but in fact cabless. Most of the weight of traffic I see on the motorways in the UK is container trucks. With humans guaranteed both ends of the journey, those will be the 1st to go.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    If the first deployment of driverless vehicles involves cargo trucks, I expect to see unemployed teamsters in personal cars boxing them in and driving the legal minimum speed (if not slower).

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I’d expect to see that in the USA, where labour, sorry, “labor” unions (such as they are) seem to have more in common with organised crime gangs than with organisations of the same name elsewhere. (You can say much the same about many US police forces). I doubt such nonsense will be tolerated somewhere like China.

    Deliberate trolling of autonomous vehicles is, I think, one of the biggest barriers to their widespread adoption.

    people are not good at rationally evaluating risks

    That’s true. They’re pretty good at irrationally evaluating costs though. Companies that execute their logistics without the cost of drivers will drive everyone else out of business pretty quickly.

    (Apologies for the garbled previous post – flippin voice recognition!)

    It might also reduce the need for families to have more than one car if the car could be sent back for others to use at different times of the day

    If it’s done right, it eliminates the need to have any cars at all. We could end up with the automobile equivalent of Office 365. Remember when you had to install Word on your own computer at home, but once you’d installed it that was it? And now you use an online version that’s always up to date… but you have to pay a subscription? That’s the way cars will go.

    I picture my commute in 2060: I use an app to book a car to arrive on my driveway at, say, 07:00. A car from the local pool arrives and idles there until I get in. It’s a single-seater electric, because that’s all I need most days to take me the entirely predictable 20 miles to my place of work. When it gets me there, I get out, and it pushes off and does something else all day, I know not what. Using the same app, I book a trip home. I might, possibly, have a petrol-electric hybrid in the garage at home in case I want to take a longer trip or move some furniture or whatever. But that’s a luxury – I could as easily hire such a thing on the limited number of days I need one. Most of the time, the pool of single- or double-seater electrics is plenty to move me or myself and my wife wherever we need to go. And with enough in the pool, waiting times would be minimal anywhere other than right out in the countryside. A monthly fee would include a service charge to maintain the subscription and a variable amount based on mileage used. Economies of scale would make it ludicrously cheaper than buying, insuring, fuelling and maintaining a car of my own, AND I wouldn’t have to bother to actually drive it. Make it convenient and cheap, and you won’t have to bother selling it to people, they’ll be beating a path to your door. In a hundred years the idea of owning your own car will for most people make as much sense as owning your own horse does today.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    But while this would reduce the numbers of cars sold, the actually number of cars on the road at any given time can increase and so will gas consumption.

    Nah, they won’t be burning gas. The electric revolution will be here well before the self-driving revolution. New Electric Vehicles are already way cheaper than new Internal Combustion Engine vehicles for fleets. Hell, the Total Cost of Ownership for my personal EV is about equal to that for the ICE car I got rid of, and I’m only planning to drive it 5-10,000 miles a year. Soon TCO for new EVs will be cheaper than operating costs for ICE vehicles. At that point the only limit on switching over will be how fast we can turn lithium brine into batteries.

    Level 4 autonomous vehicles that can come pick you up on call in anything other than carefully prescribed areas are a lot further away than that. We’re 90% of the way there, which means 90% of the work remains.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    I highly recommend the story “Car Wars” by Cory Doctorow. (Read or listen to it free.) It presents a series of interconnected vignettes that examine some ethical dilemmas and potential hacking dangers of self driving cars.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    Also see Cory’s essay on the trolley problem as it relates to self driving cars.

    “Should autonomous vehicles be programmed to choose who they kill when they crash? And who gets access to the code that determines those decisions?”

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    sonofrojblake @ # 5: I doubt such nonsense will be tolerated somewhere like China.

    I doubt that too, but something tells me Chinese drivers work cheaply enough to greatly reduce the incentives for replacing them compared to actually-make-a-decent-living Teamsters.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    something tells me Chinese drivers work cheaply enough to greatly reduce the incentives for replacing them

    The incentives for replacing them are not purely financial, and even if they are humans only get more expensive, automated *anything* only ever gets cheaper.

    they won’t be burning gas. The electric revolution will be here well before the self-driving revolution

    Currently the biggest barrier to that is the domestic electricity delivery infrastructure. Right now in my neighbourhood there are probably two or three Guardian-reading knit-your-own-yoghurt tree huggers charging their Teslas from a socket in their double garage. The most energy draining thing the other couple of thousand people in my village do all at the same time is roast a chicken on Sunday or put the kettle on at the end of “Coronation Street”. If seven hundred houses all started plugging in a 32A drain on the supply simultaneously, and leaving it there all night, the local substation would fall over. Rinse and repeat across the country and you’ve got a LOT of work to do for the National Grid company to do before electric cars are practical for the general populace.

  10. lanir says

    @sonofrojblake: Automation doesn’t always make things cheaper. It’s highly dependent upon the implementation. And it doesn’t take too many layers of the stuff to make finding a problem a complete nightmare.

  11. lanir says

    The problem with automation in cars is that it’s not simple. You’d want to ideally remove some variables to get it to work right. There are two big ones that show up on the road right now all over. How other people drive, which I think everyone understands will be a problem. And how well maintained the vehicle is. That last one makes me think we might end up seeing something like zipcars being a practical use for a self-driving vehicle before we see the majority of people owning one. I kind of hope that doesn’t work though. It would be one hell of a steep investment to pull off right and having the kind of people who could do that control movement across the country… Yeah, that won’t be good at all.

  12. says

    Mano Singham@#13:
    You may have heard that Uber, Lyft and a whole host of companies have signed a letter that only companies that operate fleets of vehicles should be allowed to have SDVs in population dense areas and individual owners should not.

    Capitalists sure do love a free market, don’t they?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *